Before she died by suicide, my mom, Donna, had a beautiful life. She was hilarious and fun. Her fluffy red curls would sway to the beat while she two- stepped to Cajun music. She lived in a colorfully painted, art-filled house with gardens bursting with flowers. She was in love with her boyfriend of 12 years, Pat. Her days were filled with pottery, gardening and her grandbaby ― with another on the way.
My mom had bipolar disorder, and she had faced ups and downs over her 30-year struggle with the disease. For decades, a light dose of lithium had kept her stable, but one day it stopped working. She was prescribed a new medication, but it did not stabilize her, and over the following months she experienced a horrific series of side effects. The drug came with a warning for the potential to increase suicide risk, and she was self-aware as suicidal ideation began to plague her. She vocalized her need for help, and our family mobilized to protect her and make sure she had access to the best medical care available.
In the months leading up to her death, she voluntarily entered psychiatric wards three times. While the hospitalizations helped stabilize her, the experiences meant giving up her comforts and separated from her beloved family and pets. It wasn’t easy, but she was in the fight for her life and did not want to die. Once she came home from her third hospitalization, Pat quit his job to take care of her full time. She had daily contact with her psychiatrist, but getting off the medication required her to slowly taper over the course of two months. She died a week before she was due to finally end taking the drug.
On June 26, 2018, my mom told Pat she was going to the mall to buy underwear. It was highly unusual for her to go out by herself, but Pat hoped it was a sign of her improving condition. He watched her on their home’s security cameras to make sure she was safe walking to her car. She petted her kitties on the front porch before leaving. But, the moment she left, Pat knew something was off. He feared she would try to harm herself and called the police immediately. He continued to call the police over and over begging for help, but there was nothing the police could do.
The call came in from my dad the next morning.
My mom’s suicide was shocking, but it wasn’t a surprise ― it had been my biggest fear for some time. But hearing that it was a gun death was earth-shatteringly unbelievable. My mother never owned a gun; our family owned no guns. A gun felt so not her ― not us. How she gotten a gun was beyond my ability to even imagine.
The grief was like being sliced open. The trauma was so physical. My body was filled with pain. Even writing this now, four years later, I feel the pain returning. It starts in the back of my mouth and spreads through my throat and up my skull. The tightness around my throat feels like I’m being strangled. The stress pulls my shoulders up and balls my fists. My back hurts. My knees ache. My eyeballs sting.
I called the gun dealer the next day. I politely asked if I could return her gun. He told me “all sales are final” and then hung up on me.
I posted the following on my Facebook page:
“My mom bought a gun in New Orleans on Tuesday and drove to the Tree of Life and opened the box and shot herself. I’m telling you all because gun control is not only about homicide, it is twice+ as likely to be a suicide. People suffering from bipolar and depression have no way to protect themselves from a suicidal gun purchase in Louisiana. I wish my mom could have registered herself as being unfit to buy a gun. She would have signed it years ago to protect herself and our family. I hope one day we can give people with bipolar and depression a better chance at living, but we are a long way off. I’m sorry to be so raw, I feel raw. I can’t believe how impossible it was to get my mom help and how easy it was for her to buy a gun. RIP Mama Donna Nathan. It’s OK to share this if you like.”
The post went viral.
Yes, I didn’t want my mom to have been able to buy a gun, but nothing would bring her back. And now I was worried about my own mental health. The trauma of her death threw me into a deep depression. I didn’t feel safe, and I became determined to give myself and others the missing tool that could help us survive.
I envisioned Donna’s Law, named for my mother, as a way to enable people who feel they are at risk for suicide to willingly suspend their ability to purchase a gun. One can remove the prohibition whenever they choose. It takes several weeks processing time for their ability to pass a background check to restore their access. And as it’s a completely voluntary and personal prohibition, it does not interfere with one’s Second Amendment rights.
Donna’s Law was brought to life by myself and University of Alabama law professor Fred Vars, who wrote the model legislation. Our local newspaper picked up the story of my quest and endorsed the bill. Through that media attention, I was able to secure a state representative to sponsor Donna’s Law in Louisiana. I got my day at the State Capitol, but the bill was deferred and never brought forward for a vote.
However, three other states ― Washington, Virginia and Utah ― have adopted legislation and on July 13, 2022, House Bill H.R. 8361, known as The Preventing Suicide Through Voluntary Firearm Purchase Delay Act, was introduced by Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D WA) and Congressman John Curtis (R UT).
The bill will require the Attorney General to “establish and maintain a secure internet-based platform, separate from other databases in the national instant criminal background check system.” An individual can remove themselves from the list at any time, but there is a 21-day waiting period before they are able to purchase a firearm again. There is also a provision that they can be removed from the list within 24 hours if a mental health professional declares that an individual “does not present a substantial risk of harm to self.” There is no limit to the number of times a person can add or remove themselves from the list. The bill is being endorsed by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, National Alliance on Mental Illness, National Education Association, and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education.
I’m not at the end of this story yet. Hopefully this bill is enacted federally, so others might be able to protect themselves and their families. Sixty percent of deaths from guns in the U.S. are suicides and guns are responsible for roughly half of suicide deaths in this country. We often assume that people who die by suicide wanted to die, but it is often not the case. Many people, like my mom, want to live and if given protection during times of crisis, they can survive.
I know my mom would have signed up for this prohibition. She gave up all of her freedoms and comforts to commit herself to inpatient hospitalizations in an effort to save her life. Who knows what could have happened if she had this one additional tool. I know this legislation won’t prevent every suicide, but it will save 100% of somebody’s mom.
You can help me by asking your congressperson to support the Preventing Suicide Through Voluntary Firearm Purchase Delay Act H.R. 8361. More info is available at www.DonnasLaw.com.
If you or someone you know needs help, dial 988 or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also get support via text by visiting suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
Katrina Brees is a parade based artist activist in New Orleans. Her creative contributions to the Mardi Gras culture include audience favorites such as her dance troupe, The Bearded Oysters and The Kolossos Bike Zoo. Katrina began her activism as a trendsetter within the Green the Gras movement, encouraging ecologically responsible parading.