A researcher at Oregon State University (OSU) has found that if tailored to specific target groups, including gun owners, suicide-prevention messages could be more effective.
Elizabeth Marino, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at OSU Cascades, in central Oregon, a state in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, has worked with her colleagues for two years on a project to identify what kind of messages are more receptive for gun owners.
Their findings, published in Archives of Suicide Research, address the reality that more than half of the roughly 40,000 people in the United States who take their own lives every year do so with a gun, and that only 5 percent of people who attempt suicide via firearm survive.
To avoid identity politics, Marino's suggestion is to pay attention to cultural factors in public health messaging.
Talking over the phone on Monday about her research, Marino said that to be effective, public messaging should not be culturally neutral.
To understand the culture of gun ownership and learn about methods of improving firearm safety that respect the rights of gun owners while also helping suicidal patients stay safe, the researchers conducted interviews in 2015 with 39 adult gun owners from rural communities in central Oregon, which in turn led to a one-page suicide prevention message that encouraged restricting firearm access and also respected the cultural values and rights of gun owners.
The opening of the message, for example, read "For many of us, firearms are an American way of life - a constitutional right and a necessity in order to protect ourselves and our families. And with this right to bear arms comes responsibility. Just as we must refuse to be a victim of violent crime, we must also use common sense."
The tailored message was then used as part of a nationwide survey to determine the likelihood of it causing gun owners to engage in multiple key gun safety behaviors for suicide prevention. More than 800 gun owners, as survey participants, were randomly assigned to receive one of four messages: a control message that read only, "Mental health and suicide prevention are important public health issues"; a standard, one-page message explaining that suicide is preventable, what the warning signs are, and how to take action; the message that resulted from the interviews with gun owners; and a message that combined the tailored message with the standard message.
Survey results indicate that the respondents who received the culturally specific message in conjunction with standard suicide prevention content reported the greatest likelihood of taking steps to restrict access to firearms for those deemed at risk of suicide, and that the tendency was enhanced for individuals who were more politically conservative, lived in more rural areas, and supported gun rights to a stronger degree.
"Information by itself isn't changing minds at all," Marino noted. "But if the language in the message is sensitive and respects culturally specific values, then people are more open to the information and will maybe change their decisions."
Acknowledging that the study alone may not change the status quo, as people in the United States are politically and culturally divisive, Marino expects that more research of the kind could impact changes. "It's especially worth noting that there are in fact joint goals that people with diverse perspectives can talk about and reach consensus on as long as we understand each person's cultural framework."
And, she notes that often someone will make the decision to take his or her life, and then act on it, inside a five-minute window. "People believe if someone wants to kill himself or herself, they will just eventually do it, but that's actually not the case," Marino said. "If we can help them get past the rough patch, chances are great that people will survive."