Volunteers focus lawmakers’ attention on suicide prevention

Personal stories of grief and loss teamed up with messages of hope and proposals for change at Forefront’s third annual Suicide Prevention Education Day, Jan. 25, 2016 in Olympia. The stage was set with a striking memorial of 1,111 tombstones on the Capitol lawn. Although the tombstones were made of cardboard, the emotional impact was real because they symbolized Washington residents who died by suicide.

People of all situations gathered around the memorial and met directly with their legislators to support suicide prevention and new legislation providing for suicide awareness and prevention education for safer homes. The Safe Homes Bill, HB 2793, builds new partnerships with pharmacists and firearm dealers to raise pub

lic awareness about suicide and the need for safe storage and medication disposal. It has crucial support from firearms organizations like the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Second Amendment Foundation, and state pharmaceutical organizations. Sen. Joe Fain (R-Auburn) has introduced a companion bill, SB 6603, in the Senate.

The morning was highlighted by an emotionally powerful dedication ceremony at the memorial. Speakers included First Lady Trudi Inslee and Rep. Tina Orwall (D-Des Moines), prime sponsor of HB 2793 and champion of previous suicide prevention legislation, as well as such private citizens as Kathleen Gilligan and David Yamashita, who’ve lost loved ones to suicide, and others equally committed to improving suicide prevention.

Seattle Police Department Chaplain Charlie Scoma said, “suicide is one of those frequent calls that I do receive and it’s one of the hardest ones that I ever receive.” It affects people singularly, but also as a community, he said. Looking out at the 1,111 tombstones, he pointed out that each represents a whole community of people who have lost someone to suicide.

Jennifer Stuber, co-founder of Forefront, said, “We spent a lot of time deciding if we should use tombstones for the memorial and we decided ultimately yes, we should, because it really does show the impact.” She added that these tombstones also show positivity by calling for progress in suicide prevention by increasing the number of people who know how to help prevent suicide.

Rep. Orwall made a crucial point: “We will do our best in suicide prevention when we work together.” That means the gun rights advocates, suicide prevention and mental health advocates, pharmacists and others.

David Yamashita shared how suicide affected his family. His mother was one of those who died by suicide in 2014. Yamashita described his mother as his hero, someone who worked 60-hour weeks but still had dinner on the table and read bedtime stories before he went to bed. In the years leading up to her death, she struggled with mental illness and alcoholism. Her psychiatrist and pharmacist missed her suicidal warning signs, and she died after taking all of her medication. David and his family where not alerted about the importance of restricting these lethal means at this critical time when his mom was at risk. Yamashita closed by saying, “My mom wanted to get better, but I don’t believe that she ever had the opportunity to do so. So I am here today to fight for all those people to have the opportunity that she missed.”

After the memorial service, people walked to the Governor’s Mansion for a luncheon reception celebrating the implementation of the State Suicide Plan. Governor Jay Inslee, First Lady Trudi Inslee, Department of Health Secretary John Wiesman, Rep. Orwall, and several other legislators joined more than 75 Forefront volunteers for a light lunch and powerful short speeches about personal losses, struggles and passion for saving others. Department of Health Secretary John Wiesman said “suicide is clearly a public health issue” and commended Gov. Inslee for “making this a priority—to put funding aside for suicide prevention.”

Throughout the day people talked to their legislators about why HB 2793 should be passed. The meetings varied district to district — at least one group of constituents met in a hallway convenient to their legislator’s hearing. Most groups gave each member a task — whether explaining parts of the bill, sharing a personal story, answering questions or asking for the legislator’s vote at the end of the meeting.

Debbie Reisert a Forefront volunteer whose grandson used a neighbor’s unsecured firearm to take his life, considered Education Day 2016 a success. Even though she was part of the committee that decided on the tombstones and help set them up, she still was shocked by their impact. She said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if every year we put this up, we had fewer and fewer each year?” She added that coming to Education Day each year is a powerful part of her own healing. “This is the club that you never want to have to join but if you do, this community of people makes it easier to heal and we heal together,” Reisert said.

The day’s success was amplified by several days of news coverage showing the visual impact 1,111 tombstones, the stories of those affected by loss and the hope that suicide prevention education and legislation will save lives in the future. Take a look:

UW’s Forefront backs effort to engage gun dealers and pharmacies on suicide prevention (UW Today)

State Lawmakers considering suicide prevention bill (KING5)

Judiciary Committee looks to improve suicide awareness and prevention (press release)

UW center pushes suicide into public discussion (The Daily, UW)

House Judiciary Committee hearing testimony (TVW, starting 47 minutes into the video)

While celebrating the successes of Suicide Prevention Education Day 2016, it’s also important to remember there are many hurdles to passing any piece of legislation, even one seemingly as popular as the safe homes bill, cautioned Stuber, who has worked with Orwall and others on suicide prevention legislation passed in the past four sessions.

“The next steps for the bill include making the case for the tax credit for firearm retailers and ranges that participate in Safe Homes program in the House Finance committee (click here for testimony, starting at 51 minutes), and shepherding a companion bill through the Senate,” she said.  Go to the Legislature’s Bill Information page to track the bills’ progress through both houses and find links to other information, including contact information for your district’s senator and representatives.