Talking is Easy for Therapists, Except When It’s About Guns. Veterans Want to Teach Them How.

VA peer counselor Jay Zimmerman (left) with his dad, also a vet, at home in Tennessee. If Zimmerman feels depressed, he asks his friends (and his dad, before he died) to hold onto his guns for him until he feels better.

VA peer counselor Jay Zimmerman (left) with his dad, also a vet, at home in Tennessee. If Zimmerman feels depressed, he asks his friends (and his dad, before he died) to hold onto his guns for him until he feels better. (Photo Courtesy of Jay Zimmerman)

Jay Zimmerman got his first BB gun when he was seven, and his first shotgun when he was ten.

“Growing up in Appalachia, you look forward to getting your first firearm probably more so than your first car,” he says.

His grandfather taught him to hunt squirrel and quail. Zimmerman, who lives in Tennessee, says pretty much everyone he knows has a gun. It’s just part of the culture.

“When I went into the military, that culture was reinforced,” he says. “Your weapon is almost another appendage. It’s part of who you are.”

Zimmerman was a medic in the army in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He served in Bosnia, Africa, and the Middle East. Since he came home, he’s struggled with PTSD and depression. It reached a crisis point a few years ago, when his best friend — the guy who had saved his life in a combat zone — killed himself. Zimmerman decided his time was up too.

“I decided that I would have one more birthday with my daughter, one more Christmas with my daughter,” he says. “I had devised my own exit strategy for sixteen February, 2013.”

But then he bumped into a woman who used to ride the same school bus when they were kids. His exit date came and went. They’re married now.

Zimmerman is a peer counselor at the Mountain Home VA Medical Center in Johnson City, Tennessee. He also travels to conferences all over the country, sharing his story with therapists and with other vets. He tries to set an example that it’s okay to ask for help. Even today, if he’s not doing well, he disassembles his guns and stores them separately from ammunition, so he can’t make any rash decisions. If things get really bad, Zimmerman has a special arrangement with a few friends.

“I call them and say, ‘Look, I’m feeling like it’s not safe for me to have firearms in my home. Can you store them for me for a couple days till I feel like I’m OK to have them back?'”

Jay Zimmerman (right) was an army medic. He poses with his dad before he deployed to Bosnia in 1998.
Jay Zimmerman (right) was an army medic. He poses with his dad before he deployed to Bosnia in 1998. (Photo Courtesy of Jay Zimmerman)

Suicide is an impulsive act. Nearly half the people who survive an attempt say the time between their first thought of suicide and the attempt itself was less than 10 minutes. But the method can mean the difference between life and death: people who take pills have time to change their minds. Not with guns.

About 70 percent of veterans who commit suicide do so with a gun, which prompted President Barack Obama to order the VA to talk to vets about gun safety and storage options like the ones Zimmerman uses.

But here’s the trouble: Most therapists aren’t gun people. They don’t know how to talk about guns. And so they don’t.

“One obvious reason for that is that no one has taught them how,” explained Megan McCarthy, National Deputy Director in the Office for Suicide Prevention at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

McCarthy was invited to speak recently at a suicide-prevention conference in San Francisco for therapists who work with vets.

“How many of you would say you feel really comfortable having a conversation with any of the people you work with about limiting access to all lethal means?” she asked the roomful of therapists.

Hardly anyone raised their hand.

“Okay, so that’s why we’re here today,” she said.

Researchers recommend starting with a field trip to a shooting range. There, therapists can learn about different kinds of firearms, as well as gun locks, and get an introduction to gun culture.

When counseling vets, therapists have to ask more questions and be less directive, according to McCarthy.

“We often conceive of ourselves as experts, as people who impart information to clients,” she said. But with vets, “it may take time to build trust. Telling them what to do the first time you’ve met them is probably not going to be a very effective approach.”

Therapists learn how to talk to vets about guns at a conference in San Francisco.
Therapists learn how to talk to vets about guns at a conference in San Francisco.

 

McCarthy presented a case study at the conference: A 28-year old army veteran who fought in Iraq told his VA psychiatrist that he had an argument with his girlfriend last week. He drove to an empty parking lot and sat with his loaded handgun in his lap, intending to kill himself.

He didn’t do it. A week later, the man told his psychiatrist things were still tense with his girlfriend. But he didn’t want to talk about suicide or storing his gun.

McCarthy asked the clinicians in the audience what they would do next, if they were this man’s psychiatrist.

“Why did he not do it? That would be my question,” said one therapist.

“I’d say, would you be willing to talk more about that?” said another.

“I would want to see this individual again, within the same week,” said a third. “I believe in strong intervention.”

Jay Zimmerman, the former army medic and peer counselor, stood up. He told them they’re all wrong.

“Chances are the reason he’s not talking to you is because he’s afraid he’s going to lose his gun, that he carries pretty much all the time,” he said. “My buddies are the same way, we all carry all the time.”

Zimmerman said the vet in the case study would rather talk to someone like him than someone in a white coat.

“If he’s got that good relationship with me as a peer, as a buddy, he’s probably already called me and talked to me,” he explained.

The takeaway for psychologists at the San Francisco conference, McCarthy said, is that sometimes their role is not to intervene, but to be a facilitator, someone who can connect vets with peer counselors like Zimmerman, or suggest they talk with a buddy, not always a professional.

Talking is Easy for Therapists, Except When It’s About Guns. Veterans Want to Teach Them How. 8 February,2017April Dembosky
  • Hillary Clintub

    “[P]eople who take pills have time to change their minds. Not with guns.”

    How about people who jump off bridges or play chicken with an oncoming semi or locomotive? And why DON’T people have time to change their minds with guns? From all accounts I’ve heard, people lay their guns down and decide not to blow their brains out all the time?

    • Michelle214

      If you take an overdose of pills you have a lot of time to change your mind, induce vomiting, call 911 or be found down before dying. If you pull the trigger on your gun, you likely die immediately. The easy availability and high lethality of guns are the deadliest combination and they are the most commonly chosen means for suicide – this is why they get the most attention. http://meansmatter.org is a great resource if you’re looking for more info on the subject.

      • Hillary Clintub

        That’s probably why most people who actually intend to kill themselves use guns instead of pills. It’s fast and efficient and less painful if they do it right. Most girls use pills because they don’t really intend to kill themselves. They just want to attract sympathy or get some kind of revenge. That’s one thing I’ve read about a lot attempted suicides among teenagers. They have some kind of crazy idea that they’ll be able to watch people grieving over them after they’re dead.

Author

April Dembosky

April Dembosky is the health reporter for The California Report and KQED News. She covers health policy and public health, and has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, mental health and end-of-life issues.

Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Society for Professional Journalists (for sports reporting), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (for a story about pediatric hospice). Her hour-long radio documentary about home funerals won the Best New Artist award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2009.

April occasionally moonlights on the arts beat, covering music and dance. Her story about the first symphony orchestra at Burning Man won the award for Best Use of Sound from the Public Radio News Directors Inc.

Before joining KQED in 2013, April covered technology and Silicon Valley for The Financial Times, and freelanced for Marketplace and The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Smith College.

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