Kamla Modi, Ph.D., Director of Learning & Evaluation at JED, Sara Gorman, Ph.D., Director of Research and Knowledge Dissemination at JED, Erica Riba, L.C.S.W., Director of Higher Education & Student Engagement
It’s been well established that safeguarding and limiting access to lethal means, such as guns, reduces suicides. This is called “means restriction.” In states where there are stricter gun laws, there are fewer suicides. In countries that reduced or banned their use of lethal pesticides, suicides dropped significantly. After wire barriers were installed on a suspension bridge in England, the number of suicides halved in that location, and didn’t increase in a different location. Once safety nets were put in place to prevent jumping from a terrace in Switzerland, the suicides at that location dropped to zero and there was also a reduction in suicides at other high-up locations across the city.
Suicide can be an impulsive act, which is why removing access to something lethal can dramatically save lives.
Now there is good evidence to suggest that restricting access to lethal means in boundaried communities, such as schools, is just as important and effective as reducing access in the home. The Jed Foundation’s Comprehensive Approach to Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention has been proven to be effective in reducing suicides in boundaried communities. Within this approach, means restriction has gained the most empirical support in reducing suicide over the years.
The JED Campus approach to means restriction includes limiting students’ access to weapons, poisonous chemicals, and rooftops, windows, and other high places. All campuses are recommended to conduct an environmental scan to identify and address potential access points to lethal or dangerous means, thereby reducing the risk of suicide. The environmental scan is so essential that recently JED Campus added a campus tour and environmental scan to the two-day orientation visit for new JED Campus schools. (Due to COVID-19 however, campus visits have been shifted to shorter virtual visits).
School community members–including counseling and/or health services, security/public safety, operations and facilities, residential life, and students–are invited to bring their expertise and knowledge of their campus to that initial meeting. Students are crucial for the environmental scan because they know of secret “hot spots,” such as access to rooftops. This tour helps JED Campus advisors learn about the campus community and provides an opportunity to look for potentially dangerous areas within residential environments, main academic buildings, recreation buildings, parking garages, and other spaces where students gather and connect socially.
JED Campuses that have completed the four-year program were far more likely to have recently completed a campus environmental scan, as compared to these same schools at the start of the program. In one example, UC Davis consulted with students, campus police, and their crisis response team to identify “hot spot” areas on their campus, and discovered that parking structures were the highest-risk location on campus. They placed permanent signage in high risk locations on campus with crisis resources. Messages such as, “You matter” or “You are not alone,” along with information on who to call for help, can help students feel supported during times of extreme distress.
At Lake Washington Institute of Technology, a JED Campus, a student was in a parking lot feeling overwhelmed and contemplating suicide by walking into oncoming traffic in front of the college. Then she noticed a sign near her that said, “You matter, and you are not alone.” “She called the number on the sign for our campus public safety office and our security officer immediately went to her location and escorted her to our student development office where the director of the office and I met with her,” said Vice President of Student Services Ruby Hayden. “We decided to call 911 for police assessment and transport to a local hospital, all of whom responded promptly. I believe this sign saved this student’s life.”
Excess amounts of prescription drugs can also be an important, and often overlooked, suicide risk. JED Campuses that have completed the program also showed a significant increase in prescription drug collection programs. For example, Keck Graduate Institute had a drug takeback day on campus when students were encouraged to dispose of their unwanted and expired medicines. Penn College, in partnership with the Lycoming County District Attorney’s Office, placed a pill collection box in the office of College Health Services.
Means restriction doesn’t just happen at colleges and universities. Secondary schools can undertake similar activities to ensure that lethal weapons are not readily available at school or at home. For example, high schools can also lead frequent environmental scans, much in the way that colleges do. Schools can contact the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA’s) Office of Diversion Control’s Registration Call Center at 1-800-882-9539 or check the DEA’s website to participate in authorized prescription drug take-back days and/or to distribute information to students and families about safe prescription drug take-back locations. Most importantly, high schools need to talk to and educate parents and families about the dangers of having lethal means available in the home and how to keep young adults safe from them. For example, The Lock Your Meds Campaign offers resources and information about safe prescription medication storage that can be used for family events or to develop family and/or student messaging.
There are important considerations that families can take into account to restrict lethal means in homes. This is particularly important now, as many young people are living at home, due to physical distancing restrictions associated with COVID-19. Harvard’s Means Matter provides tips and guidelines for families to consider when protecting their youth from potential hazards in the home. This is especially essential now, since gun sales have increased, due to the pandemic and social unrest. End Family Fire, a partnership between Brady and the Ad Council, encourages safe gun storage in the home.
Lock up firearms in the home by storing them in a safety locker or storing them in a secure offsite location
Lock up prescription painkillers
Dispose of unused medication immediately and safely
Limit the availability of alcohol in the home
Know how to reach crisis support by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or texting “START” to 741-741