Behavioral health experts look to publicize gun safety

3January 2022

LA CROSSE, Wis. — In recent weeks, a series of threats against Coulee Region schools materialized, leading one to close for a day and others to increase police presence on the premises. Thankfully, no acts of violence have followed — but after the shooting at a Michigan school three weeks ago, mental health experts are on high alert.

The 15-year-old assailant in the Michigan attack, which left four dead, carried out the shooting using a gun gifted to him by his parents, which authorities stated was not securely stored. His parents are also facing charges.

If the gun had been locked up, rather than loose in a drawer, as reported, “maybe the shooting wouldn’t have happened,” says Dr. Emily Rae, psychiatrist and behavioral health specialist at Gundersen Health System.

While gun control is a frequently publicized, hot-button topic, far less emphasis is put on proper storage and handling, the La Crosse Tribune reported.

“Maybe we don’t agree on gun control laws or what kind of guns we should have, but we all seem to agree on gun safety and keeping our kids safe,” Rae says.

Rae works with teens struggling with mental and behavioral health, the majority with suicidal ideations or tendencies, and a routine discussion with parents revolves around secure storage of firearms. A suicide attempt by gun, Rae says, is far more likely to be lethal than other forms. Suicides among youth and teens overall are on the rise, and guns suicides are also increasingly common. From 2007 to 2018, suicides among those age 10 to 24 increased by 57%, and from 2008 to 2018 gun suicides in the 15 to 24 age group rose by 50%.

“We really know that a home without a gun is the safest,” says Rae. “But let’s face it, people enjoy their guns … so they’re going to be in the home. But there are ways (to own) them safely.”

Guns in the home should be unloaded, with ammunition and the gun itself locked up separately. Youth may know where keys to a gun safe are stored, and a combination lock with a random code — not a birthdate or other easily guessed sequence — is safer. Locks which go directly on the gun can also be affixed prior to storing and locking it.

“Parents might hide the gun, but most kids know where the gun is hidden,” Rae says. Adults should always be in charge of the firearm, even if the child has had hunter safety or other gun handling courses.

Rae also emphasizes that not having a gun in the home doesn’t mean there is no access.

“It’s important to remember the majority of the gun suicides and in youth (involve a) gun from home or from a relative’s home. Kids shouldn’t be able to buy guns themselves, so they’re finding somebody else’s gun that they know,” Rae says.

Greg Head, therapist at Gundersen and part of the behavioral health team, advises keeping guns stored at a gun range or locked at the home of a friend or relative where no minors live. Head also says parents should inquire about guns in the house before letting their child visit a friend.

“Over a third of all unintentional accidental shootings of children that occur in the United States happen in a friend’s home or a neighbor’s home or another relative’s home,” Head says. “So we would recommend that if your child is going to someone else’s house, you inquire (just as you would) ask about food allergies or other sort of issues of safety.”

The inquiry doesn’t need to be confrontational, and if parents feel awkward broaching it they could “put it on (themselves): ‘I’m a worrywart. There’s just been so much in the news.’ Most responsible parents and gun owners will understand the idea that it is better to be safe than sorry, and that it only takes one time for a child’s life to be lost,” Head says.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association in October declared youth mental health a national emergency, and Head says the psychological effects of the pandemic are evident on the population he works with.

“COVID-19, the way our world has been over the last two years, has really changed a lot of things,” Head says. “The experts that I work with, we are seeing things that we have never seen in our careers before. We are seeing things that even in the research literature shouldn’t be happening. I think that’s one of the factors that people need to take into consideration — COVID may have affected these children, the children in your community and in your child’s school in ways that you can’t imagine. So it’s best to take every precaution.”

Physical isolation during the pandemic, Head says, seems to be one of the underlying causes of psychological distress in teens.

Both suicide and threats, whether made to attract attention or with actual intent to act, are often impulsive decisions. The teenage brain, Rae notes, is not fully developed, and “one bad day” can spark an undoable action.

Says Head, “The adolescent brain, the prefrontal cortex, does not fully develop until sometime between 21 and 25. (At that age) we really learn to identify true risk versus benefit. And so your child will think differently at 25 than they do now.”

Parents need to actively check in with their children and recognize possible signs of mental distress, such as irritability, altered mood and behaviors, slipping grades or even giving away their personal effects.

“The key is looking for a change from from a pattern. And then instead of just brushing it off, asking yourself, ‘Well, what else could be going on there?'” Rae says. “Most kids out there that are suffering, they do want help. They act out and put out signs, like ‘leave me alone,’ but they actually do want help from their parents and the adults around them.”

Being bullied could increase the chance of suicidal tendencies, or the issuance of threats or acts of violence, and Head says bullying needs to be taken more seriously, especially by schools.

“Every day we work with individuals who identify themselves as being bullied. Despite the fact that there are laws in the state protecting students from that, we still often hear the same thing: that schools are telling the students to just ignore them, to just walk away, don’t stand around and don’t be around them. And that’s not enough,” Head says. “The schools are mandated to proactively protect the children, and now considering how many guns are on the streets and how much chaos is going on across our country because of societal influence — I think that’s a real risk. These kids should not be told to just ignore this. They should not be ignored.”

Looking at the recent sequence of threats in school threats in the area as a trend could “be dangerous,” Head says. Dismissing any threat could be detrimental, and Rae says if any sort of threat is made, whether written, verbal or in other form, parents should have their child assessed by a primary care or mental health provider.

A recent nationwide viral TikTok challenge to threaten school violence on Dec. 17 didn’t materialize into any actual shootings, but led to several arrests. Schools in the Coulee Region did not close, but some issued messages to families and stated there would be enhanced police presence on school grounds. If a threat is traced back to an individual, consequences can range from expulsion to criminal charges. A 17-year-old Central High School student is currently facing charges following an emailed threat.

Mental health conditions could factor into the making of threats or carrying out of violence, and Rae cautions not all are diagnosed or obvious. People may assume “‘This person is mentally healthy. They’re no risk at all,’ just because we don’t know lot of the times what people are dealing with.”

Head urges parents to talk to their children about the seriousness of threats and the dangers of guns. At Gundersen’s inpatient psychiatric unit, it is a daily discussion with families.

“Most of us go through life just assuming those things won’t happen. And unfortunately, what we are asking people to do is to change that and assume the worst. Assume that you may not always know what’s going on with your child because that could be a fact. Assume that their friends and media are very influential because that’s a fact. And so it is better to take every precaution and and not need it, then not to take precautions and regret it later,” Head says.

“We tend to think if we bury our heads in the sand, the best will happen or it won’t happen to us. Be proactive. It won’t increase the risk. We know that a responsible conversation with your children about gun safety will decrease the risk of an unintentional shooting.”

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