It’s been three years since the COVID-19 pandemic brought public health discourse into almost every aspect of our lives like never before. While it’s not making global headlines, there is a rich and innovative world of public health work unfolding every day – sometimes, in our own backyards. At a recent Hot Topics in Public Health panel discussion, public health educators and experts from The Robert Larner College of Medicine at The University of Vermont discussed their public health priorities for the year to come and presented updates on research that is incrementally building safer and healthier communities in Vermont and beyond.
Thomas Delaney, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the Larner College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics and instructor in UVM’s online Public Health program, specializes in suicide prevention, adolescent mental health, and qualitative research. During the Hot Topics in Public Health panel, he discussed his ongoing research into public health interventions that focus on the mental health of populations. Specifically, Dr. Delaney, in collaboration with UVM colleagues, the Vermont Departments of Health and Mental Health, and with federal funders, is focused on developing and studying interventions that can prevent firearm-related suicides.
For background, Dr. Delaney shared that suicide accounts for the majority of firearm deaths in Vermont and nationally, with guns being involved in 55% of Vermont suicide attempts annually. Because the fatality rate for suicide attempts with firearms is quite high – about 90%, according to Dr. Delaney – mitigating this harm is a priority throughout the public health community. “Firearm injuries are not usually medically reversible, which is unlike most other suicide attempt methods,” Dr. Delaney shared.
The Power of Conversation: Tapping Physicians to Talk with Patients about Safe Storage of Firearms
Understanding that nearly half of Vermonters live in a household with at least one firearm, Dr. Delaney and his collaborators are focusing their intervention efforts around safe storage practices. By keeping firearms locked and unloaded– and storing ammunition in a separate locked space – Dr. Delaney anticipates that there will be a reduction in suicide attempts that are impulsive. Making a suicide attempt is often a relatively quick and impulsive decision, and adding steps (like safe storage) and increasing the time needed to access the firearm can help create breathing room and give the person an opportunity to make different choices. Safe storage practices also reduce the risk of other, unauthorized people (including children) using a firearm to harm themselves or others, while also protecting against theft of the firearm.
To promote safe storage practices throughout Vermont, Dr. Delaney and colleagues are building collaborative bridges with primary care physicians. In a partnership with Rebecca C. Bell, MD of the University of Vermont Medical Center, Dr. Delaney developed a 13 minute self-directed e-learning module that provides physicians with basic knowledge about safe storage and models how to have a conversation about storage practices using neutral language that will not alienate patients. At just 13 minutes, the training is designed to maximize learning and impact in a succinct format suited for busy providers. For more in-depth training, Dr. Delaney is also promoting Counseling on Access to Lethal Means, or CALM, training, a free, self-paced online course for providers that can be completed in about two hours.
As more practitioners discuss safe storage with patients, Dr. Delaney expects to see a change in storage behavior through self-reported surveys that are conducted periodically with Vemronters. And downstream, the hope is that as safe storage becomes more common, a reduction in firearm-related suicides will follow.