Opinion Like me, many Americans struggle with suicidal thoughts. This law can help us.

(Anson Chan for The Washington Post)
(Anson Chan for The Washington Post)

If you or someone you know needs help, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or visit 988lifeline.org. You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Bryan Barks is a writer and mental health advocate in Baltimore.

Despite the tireless work of mental health professionals and suicide prevention advocates, tens of thousands of Americans die by suicide each year. While suicide is a complex problem with no single solution, preventing it requires innovative tools. One of these is a bipartisan bill newly proposed in Congress that would separate those struggling with suicidal thoughts from the weapon most likely to make a suicide attempt fatal: guns.

I should know. I was 19 when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The darkness has hovered above me my entire adult life. Depression and suicidality swirl together like a rain cloud, waiting to pour. I look up, hoping my life won’t come apart. Most days, it doesn’t. Most days, I am well. Most days, I go to work and try to prevent suicide among other people. But sometimes, I am unwell. And when I am unwell, I often think about methods I could use to kill myself. When I am dangerously unwell, I research those methods in depth.

At such times, I have been lucky and have gotten help that saved my life. During periods of acute suicidality, I have received inpatient psychiatric treatment numerous times. Too many others never do. In 2020, nearly 46,000 people died by suicide.

I take precautions to prevent and cope with the dark moments. It’s easier to prepare for periods of illness ahead of time. But even after 12 years of managing this illness, I cannot always feel a mood episode coming on. Often, it feels as if I only see the signs in hindsight. It’s harder to grapple with these moments when I am not well, when I am not thinking clearly.

When I am well, I want nothing more than to preserve my peace, protect my life and fend off the suicidal urges that the unwell version of myself feels compelled to act on. For me and others like me, there is a need for tools to help us preempt suicidal crises while our minds are clear and calm.

This is where House Bill H.R. 8361 comes in. The bipartisan bill, introduced in July, is known as the Preventing Suicide Through Voluntary Firearm Purchase Delay Act. It would allow individuals to voluntarily put themselves on a federal no-buy list, preventing them from buying guns from a licensed dealer. The bill would require the attorney general to establish and maintain a secure internet-based database, separate from other databases in the national instant criminal background check system. This would be known as the “Voluntary Purchase Delay Database.”

If someone later wished to remove themselves from the database, they could do so after a 21-day waiting period — a safeguard against the impulsivity that sometimes characterizes suicide attempts. As currently written, the bill also includes a more controversial provision that would allow individuals to be removed after 24 hours with a note from a mental health professional.

The Preventing Suicide Through Voluntary Firearm Purchase Delay Act is not unprecedented. Three states — Utah, Virginia and Washington — currently have similar voluntary self-prohibition laws. Washington’s law went into effect in 2019, Utah’s and Virginia’s in 2021. As the laws are new, the data on the effectiveness of voluntary self-prohibition is limited, but the federal bill’s sponsors — Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) — represent two of the states with such laws on the books, indicating confidence in the model.

People like me, who recognize that they are prone to suicidality, need this act. Research shows that access to firearms increases the risk of suicide. By allowing individuals to preemptively put a barrier between themselves and the most lethal method, we can save lives. This bill would give people prone to suicidality the agency to make decisions about their own access to guns during periods when they are not actively suicidal.

I have mental clarity most of the time, but I know the storms will come again. I want to have the ability to preempt crises. I want to have the ability to protect myself from the version of me that is not thinking clearly. People who are prone to suicidal thoughts and behaviors need this bill, which allows us to protect ourselves from our unwell selves. We need this policy, which gives us the agency to make preemptive decisions about our own health.

Please, give us the tools to preserve our lives.

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