HARRISBURG — A preliminary report released Tuesday by a state suicide prevention task force recommends gun law changes, efforts to diminish the stigma for those dealing with mental health issues, and improving access to help when people look for it.
Gov. Wolf announced the first-of-its-kind statewide task force in May 2019 with the goal of developing a four-year plan to reduce suicide in Pennsylvania.
“I truly believe elevating this issue and utilizing this meaningful, collective approach to prevention efforts will save lives across Pennsylvania,” Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said.
According to a 2018 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2017, more than 47,000 individuals died by suicide nationwide, the most recent year for which data was available. In Pennsylvania alone, 2,023 individuals died by suicide that year -- the first time in at least the last quarter-century that there were more than 2,000 suicides in Pennsylvania in a single year, according to suicide data compiled by researchers at the University of Indiana.
Key recommendations described in the preliminary report include:
• Supporting the implementation of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) proposed 3-digit “988” national suicide prevention number, that would increase access to crisis resources for callers. Miller reiterated that the current suicide hotline number is 1-800-273-8255;
• Ensuring that insurance companies abide by the law requiring that mental health services are provided at the same level as physical health problems;
• Examining the availability and extent of mental health screening and services provided in school and the referral process for community-based mental health services, as well as providing training on mental health and wellness and suicide prevention to adults that interact with children in schools;
• Increasing penalties for a person that encourages or aids a minor or individual with an intellectual disability to complete suicide;
• Passing an Emergency Risk Protection Order (Red Flag) law to provide a means to remove firearms from someone with a demonstrable risk of suicide and passing safe storage requirement legislation to reduce the likelihood of a firearm getting into the hands of someone at risk for suicide.
Wolf and gun control advocates have called on the General Assembly to pass a red flag law. In September, House judiciary committee chairman Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin County, said that he won’t allow a red flag bill to move out of that committee as long as he’s chairman of it. Gun rights groups have criticized the legislation for failing to provide gun owners with appropriate due process rights.
Legislation to make safe storage of firearms a legal requirement, has been introduced in both the state House and Senate.
House Bill 2077 was introduced in November by state Rep. Isabella Fitzgerald, D-Philadelphia. Under that legislation, a person could be cited for a summary offense on the first offense with more serious charges on second and third convictions. But if a gun is used in a crime or a suicide, the owner of the firearm would face a third-degree felony, which carries a penalty of three-and-half to seven years in prison. That measure hasn’t moved out of the judiciary committee either. A companion bill introduced in the Senate almost a year ago hasn’t moved out of the Senate judiciary committee either. Massachusetts is the only the state that requires that firearms be stored safely, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
State Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh County, said that while he supports the proposed gun law changes, he recognizes that they are controversial and he hopes that the focus remains on the other “98 percent of the report” that has bipartisan support.
"One suicide is too many," he said. "Forty-seven thousand (nationally) is a crisis."
The task force held 10 hearings across the state and received comments from 800 people, Miller said.
The task force anticipates releasing a comprehensive four-year statewide suicide prevention plan in the first quarter of 2020 that will be available for a public comment period.