Editor’s note: The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a hotline for people in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. When people call, text, or chat 988, they will be connected to trained counselors who will listen and provide resources and support. 

In the latest installment of our conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, David Umanzor, program coordinator for The Jordan Elizabeth Harris Foundation, discusses how to safeguard guns and medicines in your home if you live with someone considering suicide. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For a longer version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Alexis Allison: So, David, this conversation is for people who live with someone who has been struggling with suicidal thoughts. First, I’d like to talk about the most common means of suicide. Can you tell us about those?

David Umanzor: Yeah, so it really depends on whether we’re talking about suicide deaths or suicide attempts. When it comes to suicide attempts, probably the most common means are some sort of self-poisoning. So, some sort of medication or something to that effect. When it comes to suicide deaths, the most common are firearms. Here in the United States, 53% of all suicide deaths are by firearm. Here in Texas, it’s 58%. But here in Tarrant County, it’s 66%. 

Allison: It’s not uncommon for people to keep firearms or medication in their homes. And I want to talk about how homeowners can maintain those items in a safe way. But first, I’ve heard you say that suicide isn’t inevitable — that it’s preventable. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Umanzor: I think, first, it’s important to recognize that there are people who have lost someone to suicide. And a lot of times, the question of, ‘Why? What could I have done? What should I have done?’ always comes up. To those people, first, I want to say that, really, it’s a difficult reality to live with. At the end of the day, the only person responsible for suicide is that person who ended their life. It’s not something for us to take blame for. But, knowing that, there are skills we can learn to help prevent suicide in the future. 

I think what prevents a lot of people from learning those skills is the stigma that we carry (about suicide and mental health). It’s really important that, as a society, we begin to break down that stigma, so more people can feel comfortable going and learning how to help. And then more people can also feel comfortable going to access help. 

Suicide is not inevitable. At the end of the day, what we’ve learned is that people thinking about suicide, they’re ambivalent. They want to live, but they also want to die at the same time. So sometimes we can come in and do something positive for them, or we can encourage them or we can take time to listen to them. And especially if we know the skills on how to help someone we’re concerned about, and how to ask them directly if they’re thinking about suicide, that can prevent someone from going to attempt. 

Allison: I’ve heard you talk about a time window in which someone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts may be in more acute danger of actually dying by suicide. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Umanzor: Yeah, so someone who’s considering suicide, they’re not constantly in a crisis. The image that comes to mind is like the plot of a story, where you have a line going straight, and then you have a steady curve up. Where it kind of forms a triangle, and you’re going up, you reach the climax. And it comes down and you’ve got another steady line. 

This person has been going through life like normal, then they start going through things. They start experiencing some challenges, and you’re on that slope up. And then you reach the climax of something that someone’s going through — maybe of depression, and they get to this top part. So, on the way up, (they’ve) been thinking about suicide, even planning. But when they get to this top part, that climax is what we call an acute suicidal crisis. 

Now, when someone goes into an acute suicidal crisis, that crisis usually only lasts five or 10 minutes. And so this is where you more than likely will have a suicide attempt. We really want to take care of this person in this moment. If they have access to something lethal in those five or 10 minutes, that’s where things can go south really quick. 

After that, usually, things start to calm down a little bit more. And a lot of people have that kind of storyline over and over in their life. 

Allison: So this five- to 10-minute window, I can see why it would be so important for people living in a home with someone who’s considering suicide to make lethal means inaccessible. Can you talk first about maintaining firearms in a safe way?

Umanzor: Before I get to that, I want to talk about why means matter. When people get into that acute suicidal crisis, (they’re) very impulsive at that moment, so a lot of people use what they just have access to. 

One example is, in Sri Lanka, pesticides were being used in suicide attempts and suicide deaths. So what they started to do was only allow pesticides that were non-toxic. And they cut suicides in half after they did that. So we see that, when we are able to put time and distance between people considering suicide and lethal means, that can save someone’s life. 

Here in the United States, if you have someone in your home (who’s struggling), take that firearm out of your home for the time being. Send it to someone you trust: a good friend, a cousin, a co-worker. 

But I know, for a lot of people, that doesn’t feel very comfortable. So the alternative could be to take apart the firearm — take the firing pin or the bolt from the firearm itself, lock those two components separately, and then lock up all the ammunition separately. So that way you have that firearm locked in three different locations. And ideally, you keep them in different parts of the house. And that way, if that person does go into that acute suicidal crisis, the goal is that they can’t access that firearm in those five or 10 minutes. 

Allison: Can you talk about medications and how people can keep them in an inaccessible spot?

Umanzor: Yeah, we’ve had a serious, serious uptick in suicide attempts in youth with over-the-counter medications. Cook Children’s has had an all-time high for suicide attempts in their emergency department. Texas Health and Human Services put out a chart just this year showing the growth in suicide attempts in youth ages 13 to 19. Especially in girls, we’ve seen those numbers skyrocket, especially since 2020. And not just for 13 to 19 years, but also, starting at the age of 6, from 6- to 12-year-olds, we’re seeing suicide attempts with over-the-counter medications.

Look through your medicine cabinet, what do you have out? What is accessible to your child? Or to your family member? Sometimes we overlook over-the-counter medications. Because in our mind, it’s just Tylenol, or it’s just Advil. But we don’t think about only having safe dosages. I’ll go to Sam’s Club, or I’ll go to Costco, and I’ll get the big old bottle of medications. We’ve got to think about keeping those locked up and maybe only keeping safe dosages out.

One of the best ways to do that is, you can go on Google and find medication lock boxes that are made specifically for medicine cabinets, where you put all your medicine in it and you lock it up. You can also contact Cook Children’s Safe Kids program, and I’m sure that they can get you connected with a great lockbox and maybe even a discounted one.

Allison: Earlier you mentioned asking directly if a person is considering suicide. If people wanted to learn more about (QPR) training, how could they do so?

Umanzor: Yeah, QPR is a one-hour suicide prevention program called Question, Persuade, and Refer — those are the three simple tools anybody can learn to save a life from suicide. This kind of training is recommended for those middle school aged up. Because again, we’re having suicide attempts at younger and younger ages. So we really want to train our whole community. But you can find more information about how to get plugged in at JordanHarrisFoundation.org. Under ‘programs,’ you can hit QPR and find all the options we offer to schedule a training for your organization, your business, your church, or to attend one of our community opportunities.

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her at alexis.allison@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Alexis AllisonHealth Reporter

Alexis Allison covers health for the Fort Worth Report. When she can, she'll slip in an illustration or two. Allison is a former high school English teacher and hopes her journalism is likewise educational....