As Suicide Problem Grows in Oregon, Legislators Debate Solutions

The Senate passed a bill giving law enforcement more tools when encountering suicidal people, while the House closed gaps for mental health patients discharged from emergency rooms. But a bill to assist gun shop owners was spiked.

The Oregon House and Senate passed complementary bills addressing suicide prevention on Wednesday, but a separate bill to provide gun shop owners with materials and training to prevent firearm deaths was spiked without a vote.

House Bill 2526, which will not advance, directed the Department of Justice to assist gun shop owners with identifying potential suicide victims and to provide them with literature to hand to customers about the risk. The original bill required gun shop owners to disseminate the materials to gun purchasers, while an amendment from Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, would have made the program optional.

The gun shop bill was introduced by Buehler and represented a rare bipartisan opportunity to deal with the public health problem presented by firearms in Oregon and the United States. Just under half of the 43,000 suicides in the country in 2014 were committed with the aide of a gun.

“If someone buys a handgun, they’re over 50 times more likely to kill themselves in the next week,” Buehler told The Lund Report. He said his legislation was modeled on laws that had passed in about half the states; it had the support of some gun rights groups while still being opposed by others.

He said gun-control advocates had been supportive, but HB 2526 did not make it out of the House Judiciary Committee by the deadline this month, nor was it passed on to the House Rules Committee to keep it alive.

The office of House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, did not respond to questions about why the bill was spiked, but Buehler said partisan politics may have gotten in the way. Buehler is seen as a potential challenger to Gov. Kate Brown next year and some Democrats are not enthusiastic to support his initiatives. However, he said that Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, a co-sponsor of HB 2526, planned to reintroduce it this session as one of her priority bills.

The House did pass House Bill 3090, a bill from Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, which requires hospital emergency departments to adopt discharge procedures for patients in a mental health crisis, helping to coordinate care from acute care to outpatient treatment.

“Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for youth 10 to 24,” said Keny-Guyer, who added that suicide rates have been on the rise in the state since 2000, even as they have dropped elsewhere.

HB 3090 is an extension of the 2015 Susanna Gabay Law, which required hospitals to develop such plans for psychiatric patients, something that failed to happen for Gabay, who committed suicide. But the 2015 law only applies to admitted patients, not people who come to the ER but are never formally admitted to the hospital. HB 3090 closes that gap, which Keny-Guyer said was especially crucial in rural hospitals without psychiatric wards.

The House also passed a separate Keny-Guyer bill, House Bill 3091, which requires health insurers and Medicaid plans to cover a behavioral health assessment and any recommendations.

The Senate passed Senate Bill 833, which directs law enforcement agencies to encourage officers responding to behavioral health incidents to offer to telephone the suicide hotline for the person in distress.

“Our mental health system is in a crisis,” said Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, the chief sponsor of SB 833, which was also sponsored by Buehler and Keny-Guyer. “There’s a reason why Oregon’s suicide is growing while other states are declining.”

SB 833 sparked a volley of comments from senators concerned about the issue. “This is a clarion call for qualified suicide prevention specialists,” said Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose. “We need to keep our commitment to Lines for Life.”

Sen. Brian Boquist, R-McMinnville, whose son took his own life, complained that the Oregon Health Authority had done a poor job of enacting previous suicide prevention laws, singling out one that was intended to provide law enforcement officers with hands-on training to prevent suicides but instead was turned into a PowerPoint slide presentation.

Oregon had the 14th-highest youth suicide rate in 2012 and 2013, according the Centers for Disease Control -- 166 deaths, or about 11 deaths for every 100,000 people. It’s a problem that’s especially high in the American West -- all but two states in the top 15 are west of the Mississippi River, while only two western states -- Texas and California -- are in the bottom 15.

Alaska leads the nation with 25 suicide deaths per 100,000 people while Rhode Island had 3 youth suicide deaths per 100,000 people in 2012 and 2013.

The reasons for the higher suicide rate in the West are unclear, but two factors appear to be a greater proliferation of firearms and an isolating, individualistic culture, according the state Youth Suicide Intervention and Prevention Plan. Native Americans, who have larger populations in the West, are also at a much higher risk than other races.

Male youth are four times as likely to kill themselves as female youth, and male returning military veterans are four times as likely to commit suicide than other men.

The recently released plan calls for integration of existing suicide prevention programs, supporting school intervention and providing additional training to community first-responders and clinical service providers.

Reach Chris Gray at chris@thelundreport.org.

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