There’s a spike in youth suicides. Easy access to guns is part of the problem.  

September 10, 2023 3:33 am

The distinctive clock tower and main building of the Menninger campus was a familiar landmark in Topeka for decades. (Emily Cowan of AbandonedKS.com)

There’s a book I turn to every now and then to remind myself not to surrender to despair. It’s called “Abandoned Topeka: Psychiatric Capital of the World” and it’s a photo album about the forgotten and mostly hidden places around town.

The author is Emily Cowan, who writes in the introduction that she lived in Topeka until she was 10, but was drawn back by her love of history and photography to document the orphaned buildings in her hometown. I don’t know Cowan, but I like her spirit, and she’s just the kind of urban explorer we need to remind us of where we’ve been.

Her book certainly did that for me.

My chief interest is the documentary photos of the Menninger campus in the two decades after the world-famous psychiatric facility closed its doors in 2003 and moved to Houston. The distinctive clock tower and main building was a familiar landmark in Topeka for decades and has been saved recently from demolition by a state grant. The photos in Cowan’s book show empty and disheveled nurse’s stations, discarded binders filled with hospitalization agreements, corridors with doors leading to patient rooms on either side.

The Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 988.

Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential.

You see, when I was a graduate student about three decades ago, I was a resident at Menninger’s.

I’m not going to share the details of what led me there, or the intended method other than to say it involved a firearm, but I will say I was suicidal because of personal problems that seemed insurmountable. My lowest of lows came one night when I watched a storm over the Kaw from my hospital room and listened to the rain against the window pane. To this day, I can’t see rain against a window without feeling a pang of sadness.

This isn’t easy for me to relate because there is a societal stigma attached to suicide and those who contemplate it. For a long time, I was ashamed to tell this story. But looking back on that hard time so long ago, I understand now that my condition wasn’t weakness but a combination of a lot of bad luck, some bad personal choices and a predisposition to depression baked into my genes. Although I would have done some things differently, I was lucky enough to survive and put my life back together.

I honestly don’t know what it was that helped me survive, but it probably was a combination of medical and therapeutic help and the many books I read on the subject, especially Kay Redfield Jamison’s “An Unquiet Mind.” In the past 20 years, I have seldom allowed the weeks at Menninger’s to bother me other than during the occasional rainstorm.

I’m telling you this story because today kicks off National Suicide Prevention Week. It’s important, I think, to share our stories of pain and sometimes loss to help others, because when you’re in the belly of the beast, you feel alone. If you are suffering in this way, I want you to stop right now and dial 988 for help or use one of the links that that accompany this opinion essay.

Our culture has also complicated the issue, at once presenting suicide as a romantic alternative to emotional pain and as an escape for the weak, worthy of criminal punishment. Consider “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet” or “Chatterton,” the story of Judas in the New Testament, “Veronika Decides to Die.” Ernest Hemingway, Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain. Historically, suicide has been regarded as a sin, with victims denied burial in consecrated ground. Legally, it’s still considered a crime in at least 20 countries.

But there is nothing romantic, heretical or inherently criminal about suicide. It is a public health crisis that deserves to be dealt with in the same manner as other crises, and that begins with frank and informed talk. As painful as my Menninger’s sojourn was, it is nothing compared to the horror and grief of survivors who have lost family members and friends to suicide. The most harrowing stories are those from the parents of children who have ended their lives.

In Kansas, the overall suicide rate increased 65% from 2001 to 2020. This makes us 18th in the nation, with those most at risk being older men living in the “frontier” counties of western Kansas, according to statistics from the Kansas Health Institute. Nationally, Wyoming and Montana lead the nation for the worst suicide rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control, followed by Alaska, New Mexico, South Dakota and Colorado.

About one American every 11 minutes takes their life, according to the CDC.

Among young people, suicide is the second leading cause of death, behind automobile accidents. From 2019 to 2021, child suicide attempts resulted in a 68% increase in emergency department visits, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. And, in the past decade, according to the KDHE, there was an overall 56% increase in young persons using firearms to kill themselves.

Let that last figure sink in.

The inside of the abandoned Menninger Clinic in Topeka offers only a suggestion of its past. (Emily Cowan of AbandonedKS.com)

What has happened in Kansas in the previous 10 years that might have resulted in such a dramatic rise in firearms-related self-annihilations? The Kansas Legislature’s loosening of gun laws might be a factor. Consider that in 2006 Kansas passed a concealed carry law; in 2014, the state ended the ability of local authorities to restrict firearms, including at state universities unless a prohibitively expensive set of safety precautions were installed; and in 2021, Kansas lowered the age for concealed carry to 18.

In Kansas, you can buy a long gun — including an assault rifle — at 18, no permit needed. For a handgun, you must be 21.

From 2016 to 2020, Kansas had the 10th-highest suicide rate in the nation for those aged 15-24, according to a study from the Kansas Health Institute, and the 11th highest rate for those between 10 and 14. Of those male youths who committed suicide, 61% used a gun, while 24 percent of the females did.

What would you do to save the life of a child? For most of us, the answer is whatever it takes. For Kansas lawmakers, however, the answer is whatever it takes unless it departs from the fanatical agenda that has made it possible for those who aren’t old enough to buy a beer at their local bar to carry a concealed weapon in the waistband of their jeans.

Save me the angry messages about me being anti-gun. I’m not. I own modern hunting weapons and black powder reproductions of Civil War-era revolvers. Hell, I even built a replica of a Hawken mountain rifle. But Kansas has gone too far. Public safety is served by stricter controls on concealed carry and the obsession for assault rifles is symptomatic of a deep political pathology. This easy access to guns has a number of other, unintended consequences — such as professors wearing bullet-proof vests in class — but the spike in firearms-related suicides is the most alarming.

A recent meeting of the special committee on mental health — a group composed of eight Republicans and three Democrats — heard from Wyatt Beckman, a senior analyst for the Kansas Health Institute, who said firearms made it possible for someone to quickly carry through with a suicidal impulse, with a high probability of success.

The majority of the lawmakers on the committee, however, were unconvinced by recommendations for better gun safety measures, including safe storage programs.

“We need to focus not so much on the tool as we do the reason,” said Rep. Doug Blex, R-Independence, according to reporting by the Reflector’s Rachel Mipro. “The reason is what causes people to pull the trigger so to speak, and sometimes we get overboard with thinking that if we take away the tool, that’s going to solve the problem.”

Another Republican lawmaker, Sen. Carolyn McGinn of Sedgwick, pulled out her phone during the meeting and questioned how much social media contributed to youth depression. She asked the experts if they were “doing any studies about what’s on phones and how much kids are using that?”

The attitudes displayed by Blex and McGinn are common among the GOP majority in the Kansas statehouse and across the nation. Never question whether gun laws need to be modified to protect the public, but deflect instead to something else. The problem must be in our phones instead of our guns.

While suicide is a public health issue, there is no one-size-fits all solution. The kind of help a teenager in urban Wyandotte County needs is much different than an elderly farmer in Greeley County, in far western Kansas. The lawmakers also confuse the how and the why of the issue. It’s like looking at the wreck of the Titanic and debating the nature of icebergs instead of asking if there were enough lifeboats on board.

The why of suicide is a complex problem that has confounded researchers for decades and is likely to puzzle them for many more. But the how of suicide has been precisely determined, as evidenced by the statistics on how often suicidal individuals turn to guns.

The solution is not to take everyone’s guns away, but to make special provisions to promptly keep them out of the hands of those who express suicidal ideation. One idea, advanced by Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, was to explore safe storage programs. This might entail programs to encourage family members to remove firearms from a home with an at-risk individual and store them at a secure location, perhaps at a gun store, until the crisis has passed. Montana lawmakers have enacted such legislation, but practical and legal hurdles remain.

I was lucky to have spent a few weeks at Menninger’s and then gotten on with life. There was more to it than that, of course, but I was fortunate to be in a place that prevented me from acting on an impulse from which there is no recovery. But there are families in every corner of the state whose loved ones weren’t so lucky, who aren’t reminded of a troubled time by just a few raindrops but who will forever live with the tragedy of an empty seat at the dinner table.

The state should devote the resources necessary so that every Kansan, especially children, has access to appropriate resources in a mental health emergency. Lawmakers should recognize that making guns more accessible than ever in Kansas may have unintentionally contributed to a spike in suicides among young people.

The question is, what are they willing to do about it?

Waving a phone at the problem isn’t going to save a single life.

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category.