UW Today

January 22, 2016

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

News and Information

Forefront set up a temporary memorial at the state legislative building lawn with 1,111 markers representing the Washingtonians who died of suicide in 2014.

Forefront set up a temporary memorial at the state legislative building lawn with 1,111 markers representing the Washingtonians who died of suicide in 2014.David Friedle

Patty Yamashita was a vivacious, sweet, high-energy woman who balanced a career as an IT manager with a steadfast dedication to her family. She worked long hours but was always home to put dinner on the table and read a bedtime story for her children.

“My mother was my hero,” said her son, David. “Usually a boy or man would say that their father showed them the way in terms of growing up and how to live and how to conduct yourself in the world, but my mom really showed that to me.”

But in July 2014, Patty, who had struggled with mental illness for several years, ended her life by overdosing on prescription medication.

“Never in a million years would we have guessed that she would make the decision she did,” said David, 29.

Patty and David Yamashita

Patty and David YamashitaPhoto courtesy of David Yamashita

Patty Yamashita was one of 1,111 Washington residents who died by suicide that year. Nearly 70 percent of suicides in the state involve guns, poisonings and drug overdoses, and suicide prevention experts say many of those deaths happen in homes where guns and medications are not safely stored.

Forefront: Innovations in Suicide Prevention, based at the University of Washington School of Social Work, is working closely with Rep. Tina Orwall (D-Des Moines) on new legislation aimed at reducing these tragedies. The bill, which has support from gun owners, would engage firearms dealers and pharmacists to raise awareness about suicide and the need to restrict access to guns and prescription drugs for those at risk of attempting to kill themselves.

House Bill 2793 would:

  • Create a Safe Homes Task Force led by the UW School of Social Work that would develop suicide prevention messages and trainings for gun dealers and owners, pharmacy schools and firearm safety educators
  • Incorporate suicide prevention messaging into firearm safety brochures and safety training
  • Require the state Department of Health to develop a “safe homes partner” certification for firearms dealers and offer tax credits for those who become certified
  • Direct the Department of Fish & Wildlife to update safety brochures to include information about suicide awareness and prevention
  • Test the effectiveness of combining suicide prevention training and distribution of secure storage devices and medication disposal kits in two Washington communities, one rural and one urban, with high suicide rates

Jennifer Stuber, Forefront’s co-founder and faculty director, said the legislation has support from numerous stakeholders, including the Seattle and King County public health department and the Washington State Pharmacy Association, and was developed in close consultation with the National Rifle Association and the Washington-based Second Amendment Foundation. The buy-in from gun owners, she said, makes this legislation unique.

“Gun owners are excited about the bill, and they want to help with suicide prevention,” said Stuber, an associate professor at the UW School of Social Work. “The suicide prevention movement has needed this so desperately. This is a message that’s coming from the very people it needs to come from.”

Nearly 80 percent of firearm deaths in Washington state are suicides. In 2014, 49 percent of suicides in Washington involved firearms, while poisonings from prescription medications and other substances accounted for 19 percent.

“The consequences of suicide are devastating to families and the figures are alarming,” Orwall said in a release, noting that Washington’s suicide rate is 14 percent higher than the national average.

“But is the nation’s most preventable form of death, and we all have a role in averting it by forming partnerships and working together to raise awareness and limit access to lethal means.”

Forefront co-founder Jennifer Stuber

Forefront co-founder Jennifer StuberEnrique Garcia

Stuber, who lost her husband to firearm suicide in 2011, said the legislation is intended to target people at risk of suicide as well as other gun shop and pharmacy customers.

Customers would see educational messages displayed, and employees would be trained to talk with them about suicide risk and the importance of securely storing guns and prescription drugs.

“People think that the big risk of storing firearms safely is about someone breaking into your house and using them to commit crimes,” she said.

“But the very real risk is within your own home. If you’ve got kids in your home, if you’ve got someone who’s depressed in your home, if you’ve got someone who’s depressed visiting your home — those are the kinds of risks that people aren’t aware of.”

The bill, whose companion bill is sponsored by Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, is scheduled to go before the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 26. Forefront has helped support the passage of five other suicide prevention bills in the past four years that require training for mental health workers, doctors and nurses, and require middle and high schools to implement screening, training and suicide response plans.

Forefront volunteers will be speaking about the legislation at its third annual suicide prevention education day in Olympia on Jan. 25. More than 50 supporters, most of whom have been directly impacted by suicide, are expected to attend. The group will hold a ceremony on the front lawn of the state legislative building at 10:30 a.m. that will feature a temporary memorial with 1,111 mini tombstones representing the Washington residents who died by suicide in 2014.

Patty Yamashita, who loved animals and was a skilled cook and baker, grew up in Seattle’s Rainier Valley. Despite attending community college for just a few semesters, she built a successful career in the tech industry, working for companies including Nintendo and T-Mobile. She juggled work and family with seeming ease, but was an alcoholic who managed to hide her drinking from her family.

In 2009, Patty underwent treatment for alcoholism, and shortly afterward was laid off. Over the next three years, as she applied for job after job, her mental health began to unravel, David said. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression and became increasingly unstable. She was having trouble managing her medications — forgetting them one day, taking a double dosage the next — so David and his father kept them locked up, carefully dispensing her daily dosages.

In early July 2014, David took his mother to a pharmacy to refill her prescriptions, then dropped her off and went golfing. He forgot to lock up her medications, not fully realizing the desperate state his mother was in. By the next morning, Patty lay in a hospital bed, unconscious. She died a day later with her family by her side.

David has been working with Forefront for a year and believes the proposed legislation could save lives by increasing awareness and facilitating conversation about mental illness and suicide.

“I think the stigma around suicide obscures the fact that recovery from mental illness does happen,” he said. “I wish my mom would have lived to know that.”