Congress is poised to enact legislation to make it legal for military mental health counselors (and commanders) to discuss personal firearms with soldiers considered at risk for suicide. That’s right, it is currently illegal to discuss ownership (and any use of) personal firearms with soldiers identified as potentially suicidal. 6 out of 10 military suicides are by firearm (similar to the rate of non-military suicides.) Now before we all collectively smack ourselves on the forehead and exclaim a universal; “Duh” let’s think this through.
The military is acknowledging that there are mental health issues that need to be addressed. The Pentagon and Congress are willing to even consider wading into “don’t you come near my gun” political territory. The military culture is showing signs it is willing to change. Culture is not easy to change. A culture whose very existence is based on rules, regulations, defense, solidarity, and yes; firearms, is showing some flexibility. They seem to be willing to admit that there is a problem that needs to be addressed holistically.
At first blush discussing (personal) gun ownership with someone who may be a danger to him/herself seems rather straightforward. No one is confiscating the gun(s) or demanding they be relinquished (perhaps that will come with time.) The potentially lifesaving measure being considered by Congress is merely a conversation about guns. But this is the military we’re talking about. There are people who consider personal gun ownership to be a very important part of who they are and of their patriotism. Knowing that the subject may not be private could have an effect on a soldier’s willingness to discuss mental health issues. Living in a closed environment (a military base) one might guard his/her privacy. Living on a base (with a gun store!) surrounded by people openly carrying guns, it could feel very stigmatizing to have your gun ownership questioned.
All of this is not to suggest that there should ever be any gag rules around mental health and safety. But it is worth noting that military+mental health+right to bear arms= a minefield. Any move towards open and direct conversation about military mental health and safety should be encouraged. Could this step (of removing the speech restraint) be the first of many necessary steps? Will soldiers identified as being at risk have all firearms confiscated? Could we someday live in a world in which people with mental illness do not have access to guns? Why not? Think of all the changes in safety and in illness awareness in just the last thirty years. Seat belt use was once optional (if they existed at all,) the words “breast cancer” were whispered (if uttered at all,) the intellectually and physically challenged were definitely not mainstreamed, and many people with mental illness suffered in silence. As a culture we’ve demonstrated we are capable of change. If an organization defined by tradition and rigidity can take this first step, just think what the rest of us could do!