Nearly 50,000 Americans completed suicide during 2022 – a stunning number, reflecting a continued rise in the suicide rate of some 35 percent over the last two decades. Numerical tolls provide a blunt gauge for societal problems, but numbers alone can make a problem feel remote and impersonal. People who lose a loved one to suicide experience shock and hurt that is both tender and omnipresent despite the passage of time.
A healing instinct motivates us to want to prevent this pain from repeatedly occurring in our community. We have heard from fellow Coloradans reaching out to us as their elected representatives and asking, “what else can be done?” We are answering their call with action that honors the memory of lost loved ones and prevents more families in our state from experiencing this devastating tragedy.
Unfortunately, online encouragement and easy access to life-ending materials can lead to unnecessary death by suicide. Last November, a Clear Creek County family’s 17-year-old son was struggling with chronic physical issues and common anxiety when he found a supportive community online that encouraged suicide. From there, he was directed to an online retailer who sold pure sodium nitrite, a substance which has few household uses but has become an increasingly popular suicide method. The price he paid to an online retailer who knew the pure sodium nitrite was being used for suicides was $13.99, shipped by two-day mail. Ingesting the compound, he died shortly afterwards.
Sadly, this young man, a constituent of ours, was one of at least 222 people nationwide using this particular poison to complete suicide during 2022.
Shockingly, there is an ecosystem online for people who want to complete suicide, outside and distinct from the legal path of medically-assisted suicide; there are deadly materials available online, shipped right to young people. For people feeling intense hurt, depression, or trauma, going online to find a way to heal is common. A web search for relief from a physical ailment generally leads to sites that recommend medication or a physician visit. But people struggling with suicidal ideation who seek help online can easily wind up in a web-based wasteland that offers advice on “how to” take one’s own life. And many heed that sick advice.
We plan to introduce two bills in the upcoming General Assembly that could save lives and spare families from the enduring pain of suicide caused by this online reality.
The first would explicitly prohibit encouraging an individual to complete suicide, not just by restricting the means as current law does, but by prohibiting advice and encouragement. The First Amendment cannot simply be tossed aside, of course, but we believe the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the validity of restricting speech that is “integral to a criminal act.” The power of words directed at someone who is struggling to maintain mental equilibrium can be just as impactful as handing someone a loaded gun and our statutes should reflect that.
Colorado’s End-of-Life Options Act permits qualified medical professionals to assist terminally ill adults to end their lives. But in “non-medical” situations, assisting with suicide is a criminal offense – manslaughter — in Colorado and most other states.
However, due to vague language, prosecutors used the suicide manslaughter statute only four times in the last five years. This pales in comparison to the frequency of suicides completed after people receive instruction and encouragement to take their own lives. While difficult to document, with 1,287 people completing suicide in Colorado in 2022, numbers compel us to act.
Our second bill would ban the sale of pure sodium nitrite to consumers and require any pure sodium nitrite product sold to carry explicit warnings of harm. Experts know that this type of suicide prevention, often referred to as “means restriction,” can be an effective method to reduce death.
The Colorado Department of Health and Environment recently released, to health care providers throughout the state, an advisory on sodium nitrite, noting “an increase in suicide by ingestion of sodium nitrite in Colorado and across the United States.” We commend the Department for taking this important step and look forward to bolstering their efforts with legislation.
We have just concluded September, which is Suicide Prevention month. September is not merely about remembering the harm suffered by so many Coloradans or about lending support to families impacted by limitless grief, but is also about taking tangible measures to interrupt the cycle of suicide, and we are ready to get to work.
If you or a loved one is experiencing emotional distress, call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 988 or Colorado Crisis Services at text TALK to 38255, or access chat via coloradocrisisservices.org, where help and hope are available at any hour, any day.
Dylan Roberts, of Eagle County, represents District 8 in the Colorado Senate.
Judy Amabile, of Boulder, represents District 49 in the Colorado House of Representatives.
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