Editorials

Josh Hawley could learn a lot about spike in suicide from KC widow who knows too well

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley delivered a fiery floor speech Thursday about the decline in life expectancy in his home state. One of the main causes, he said, is suicide.

He’s right about that. Hawley is right, too, that Congress has done nothing to help. But to hear him tell it, the spike in self-harm has its roots in joblessness, and “the slow-motion collapse of the working class in America.”

“I’ve seen it in the small towns of my state. In the places where the TV cameras never go, where town squares sit half-empty … I’ve heard it in the words of young men who graduated high school only to find no jobs and no place to learn a trade. And no hope for anything that’s better.”

At a time of almost full employment — have you not heard the Trump economy is booming, Senator? — that’s a bold take on the cause of rising rates of suicide, crime and addiction. Naturally, Hawley did not mention guns. Or acknowledge that access to treatment for addiction and mental illness would improve dramatically if Missouri expanded Medicaid. He did not note that income inequality is at its highest level in 50 years. Or that the policies of the president he strongly supports are widening the wealth gap that’s leaving rural America behind.

He did not say that Missouri is the only state in the country that does not monitor prescription drug use because lawmakers in his party keep defeating legislation that would create a statewide database. Or that, again because of the GOP majority in Jefferson City, Missouri keeps relaxing its gun laws, with deadly results.

To suicide survivor Alyvia Elliott, a nurse in a Kansas City middle school, “that’s disgusting. There’s no nice way to put it.”

You may have heard about Elliott’s campaign to get us to stop calling the sledding slope at 57th Street and Brookside Boulevard, right in front of her house, “Suicide Hill,” as if that were a harmless name for a fun place. But her thoughts on the policy implications of the crisis go beyond trying to get us to think about the words we use.

The causes of suicide are more complicated than even she, who has worked in prevention for years, ever realized. “All the screens we have,” she said, would never have tagged her husband as at risk.

In April, 39-year-old traffic engineer Dustin Elliott jumped off a highway overpass he’d designed after working 20-hour days for 10 days straight. His wife was planting a tree in the yard when he left that Sunday afternoon. “He said, ‘I can’t finish my project. I love you, bye. Hey, when is the fence guy coming?’ ’’ He reminded her to keep the gate closed and left. A text that said, “I love you and I’m sorry,” seconds before he died explained nothing.

“I texted back, ‘Sorry for what? How late are you going to be?’ ’’

Complicated as the causes are, though, Elliott is convinced that most of her suicide survivors support group would not have to be there if guns had been less available, particularly for those with a serious mental illness or history of domestic abuse. “We can prevent suicide,” she says, “and guns is the place to start.”

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