Donna’s Law: A New Suicide Prevention Tool

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Katrina Brees as a child with her mother, Donna, Boston, 1979

I wept when I heard Katrina Brees share the story of her mother’s death on the CBS Morning Show. For more than a decade, Katrina and her mother, Donna, worked side-by-side producing parades in New Orleans. Her fond memories of her mom include “just her dancing in a parade, just her feeling the music, feeling the audience, giving love.”

            But the person who seemed so carefree was a tormented soul, in a constant battle with bipolar disorder. In 2018 she wrote a letter to her psychiatrist:

“Dear Doctor, it has been nine months since this episode began. I am not doing well. How long must I endure this?”

Katrina’s mother answered her own question just a few days later. On June 26, 2018, she bought a gun and fatally shot herself. She did it beneath the Tree of Life, a New Orleans landmark.

“It was the most special spot she could choose,” said Katrina. “It’s where many of our friends have had weddings. We’ve had funerals there. The space is so sacred. It feels to me like she laid herself on the cathedral of our community and died there.”

            My tears were for Katrina, her mother, and all those who have experienced deaths of despair. I am all too familiar with those feelings. Following years of depression and feelings of hopelessness my father took an overdose of sleeping pills. Fortunately, he didn’t have a gun. He was hospitalized and eventually recovered. I grew up wondering what happened to my father, when it would happen to me, and what I could do to prevent it from happening to other families.

            I faced my own dark night of the soul when my mental illness caused me to temporarily lose hope in ever feeling good again. Fortunately, with my wife’s support, I was able to reach out for help and get into therapy. I wrote about my experiences in an article, “Being Bipolar: Living in a World of Fire and Ice.”

            Professor Mike Anestis, who appeared with Katrina on the CBS Sunday Morning show, heads up the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at the Rutgers School of Public Health, said that many people survive suicide attempts using other methods.

“Intentional overdose? Only 2% to 3% of the folks who attempt suicide using an overdose die,”

said Anestis.

“Almost 95% of folks who use a firearm do. They don’t get a second chance.”

            When we think of guns and violence, we often think of homicide deaths, mass killings, and horrible tragedies like school shootings.

“Suicide accounts for anywhere from 60% to 65% of all the gun deaths in the United States in any given year,”

said Professor Anestis.

“Guns are the main cause of suicide deaths. More than half of all suicide deaths in any given year are caused by self-inflicted gunshot wounds. So, that’s somewhere in the vicinity of 25,000 firearm suicide deaths in the U.S. every single year.”

            According to University of Alabama law professor Fred Vars,

“In 2020, there were 66 gun suicides every day, which is more people than died in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. And we don’t see it. You know, it doesn’t make the news. It happens one person at a time. Unless it’s a celebrity, we just don’t hear about it.”

            But Vars is trying to change that, raising awareness while pushing for new gun legislation. He says there is “absolutely” a correlation between stricter gun laws and fewer suicides. He’s working with Katrina Brees on legislation called Donna’s Law, named after her mother. It would allow potential gun buyers to put themselves on a “do not sell” list.

“An individual would have the opportunity to suspend their ability to buy a gun, voluntarily, confidentially put their name into the already-existing background check system,” said Vars. “And if they attempted to buy a gun, that transaction would be denied.”

When asked by the CBS Morning Show’s interviewer,

“Do you have confidence that people who are suicidal would voluntarily request not to be sold a gun?”

Professor Vars replied,

“During a suicidal crisis or depressive episode, I think it is unlikely that anybody would sign up. But there are a lot of people who’ve been in that dark place who come out the other side and know they’re a danger to themselves. It’s more like an advance directive. Here, while I’m feeling better, let me prepare myself for that, and just get the gun out of the equation.

Dr. Vars speaks from personal, as well as professional, experience. In his book, Weapon of Choice: Fighting Gun Violence While Respecting Gun Rights, he shares his own experience with depression, bipolar disorder, and thoughts of suicide earlier in his life.

“I sank into a deep depression,”

he remembers.

“It was months before I could go back to work full time. Because I feared hurting myself, I stayed away from the apartment windows and kitchen knives. Since that time, I have been back on the psych ward only once more, another manic episode, confirming my diagnosis of bipolar disorder.”

This makes very good sense to me. I would absolutely put my name on a “do not sell” database to protect myself and my loved ones from the danger of my making an irrational decision at the depth of despair rather than when I was feeling more hopeful. I believe many clients I work with who are dealing with depression, addictions, and other health challenges, would also want the option of this kind of protection.

So far, Donna’s Law advocates have not yet convinced Congress to act, but three states, Washington, Utah and Virginia, have passed it, and Maryland recently held hearings. Mental health advocate Bryan Barks testified in favor of the law, saying,

“This bill would give people prone to suicidality the agency to make decisions about their own access to guns when they are not actively suicidal.”

Katrina Brees says there are also other tools we could use to lower the risk of suicides. In reflecting on her mother’s death following a 30-year battle with bipolar disorder, she wondered why her mother had gone out and purchased a gun, since all her life she had been vehemently opposed to them.

In an Op Ed she hopes to have published she wrote in part:

“My mom died by gun suicide, and she couldn’t have done it without Google. The day she died, my mom searched how to hang herself. She had been struggling with suicidal ideation brought on by a medication side effect and was under the care of a psychiatrist. A top recommended article by Google explained that suicide by handgun is statistically more reliable. 
“In a fragile state, my mom took Google’s advice and searched for gun stores near her. Google then provided directions to a gun store a couple miles away. She bought the only gun she would ever own and shot herself. After her death, I searched Google myself for information on gun suicide. I was bombarded by targeted advertisements encouraging me to buy a gun. Even the news article about my mom’s death presented an algorithm-derived advertisement telling me where I could buy a gun. As if that weren’t enough, I saw advertisements suggesting I could get a free gun — and “Buy Now” options with local pickup. 
“Google’s business model is earning revenue by maximizing click-throughs. It’s not a passive bystander in the business of selling guns and other dangerous weapons, it is an active participant. 
“When considering whether tech companies should be legally liable for the harmful content their algorithms promote, I hope the Supreme Court will consider that even if Google may not be technically liable, its failure to direct suicidal searchers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (988) is a failure of moral responsibility and a danger to society.” 

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