In July 2018, Walk The Talk America (WTTA) was founded aspiring to reduce firearm suicides and other negative incidents associated with firearm ownership. The story of the foundation of our organization began with a chance encounter one evening in 2018.
Since that night, Walk The Talk America has been focused on creating a society where the mental health and firearms communities have come together to develop innovative programs based on facts and understanding to reduce suicide and promote treatment engagement. Now that WTTA is approaching our two-year anniversary, Founder and President of WTTA Mike Sodini looks back at the time and accomplishments in between his initial letter and now.
In June 2020, we will be approaching Walk The Talk America’s two-year anniversary. My, how time flies.
Back when we began, I wrote a letter that outlined our mission and how we got started. It’s funny when you write these things, you try to inspire, but at the same time, you really don’t know how it’s going to work out. The initial support makes you think it’s a great idea, but deep down you don’t know how everyone else is going to see it, especially over the long haul.
At the beginning of a non-profit, you bet on people seeing your programs and policies having an impact on society for years to come. The inherent problem, though, is that it’s all just a vision because your programs and ideas haven’t been presented long enough (or in some cases, at all) to collect data to see how effective they are or run long enough for people to remember them.
I thought I was going to be Superman and stop the next mass shooter
In 2018, I had a chance meeting with a random stranger that sparked the idea for WTTA. After I got it set up and found that the mental health community was open to working with us, I was convinced that we would stop the next mass shooter. Hell, I thought we would probably stop all mass shootings. In my mind, I was Superman and all I had to do was raise the money to throw at the mental health professionals, who were going to work their magic. I knew the firearms community could change their language to help end the stigma. After all, we were losing so many first responders and military veterans to suicide by firearms, certainly grasping a concept like “stop saying ‘another crazy guy with a gun’ because people won’t go to get help if they think owning guns makes them crazy” was easy.
I remember sitting down in meetings and asking how we do this. I would ask mental health professionals what we needed to do for outreach and they would just tell me that we need to focus on suicide prevention. I responded, “I want to do both.” They looked at me, often with slight pity but usually a good deal of respect, as though I had no clue what I was talking about because I didn’t.
At that time, I had no idea that there is no crystal ball to predict violence. As a matter of fact, the best predictor of future violence is previous acts of violence and not (decidedly, emphatically) a mental illness diagnosis or, in many cases, even mental illness symptoms. This put me in a very interesting predicament.
The last thing I wanted to do was to form and lead an organization that just kept spitting out talking points like “mental health awareness!” and “end the stigma!” without any substance, traction, or worst of all, deliverable outcomes. I wanted us to do something and be proactive. I wanted results!
The fact that there were no easy programs or solutions for that matter was disheartening and a little terrifying. But as the saying goes, out of chaos, there is opportunity. That opportunity was to do something that literally had never happened before and boy, oh boy did we seize upon it.
Don’t just point out the problems — offer solutions
Sometimes, people say ugly things. The stigma that comes with mental health and firearms ownership is a real thing. When people don’t understand your position on something, you can find yourself on the defensive. If you stay there too long, it’s easy to forget how to help.
One thing of which I’m extremely proud is that our programs are created by the firearms industry. We are not only acknowledging the issues that come along with guns and society, we are also saying “here is what we are doing about it!” It is innovative boots on the groundwork.
Take for example our mental health flyer for gun boxes, accessories, and storefronts, and — coming soon — ammunition boxes. There was a time when both “sides” (I still resent that only two sides exist here) would have said that gun manufacturers aren’t going to include that inside the firearms case. There was a time when both sides would have said that gun ranges and retail stores won’t put them on their counters. There was a time when…
That time is history. And thank God because I am proud to have been a part of the evolution.
These cards direct owners of a newly purchased firearm to go to WTTA.org/LOVE to take a free and anonymous mental health screening. Who knew all we had to do was ask them to? We have finally found a way to change the narrative of the firearm. Not only can it represent the 2nd Amendment and freedom, but it also can be a gateway for people to get help without fear of consequence. Imagine that.
This isn’t just an issue of smart policy. This is about creating a society where the mental health and gun communities have come together to develop innovative programs based on fact and understanding, rather than fear and mistrust. One where both mental illness and gun ownership are destigmatized.
So, what are we doing?
We create alliances with both local and national mental health organizations like Mental Health America (national) and Zephyr Wellness (local) to prevent suicide death by firearms by creating materials and conducting trainings, and we’re engaging in outreach to gun shops and ranges across the country. It creates a collaborative effort to share information about depression, anxiety, PTSD, and much more so that the warning signs displayed by someone who may be considering suicide are laid bare and made plain to more people who can intervene.
One of the main ways we do this is through our WTTA.org/LOVE link that provides free and anonymous screening tools for better mental health and treatment engagement. Studies show that screenings are one of the most effective tools for early detection and symptom management.
We also have brought organizations that work in mental health and suicide prevention to national firearm trade shows and got them involved in firearm-related podcasts and radio shows to help demystify gun culture.
This program also works to educate the Second Amendment Community to show counseling experience and get firearms owners more help. We hand out literature and wristbands that promote treatment engagement.
As previously mentioned, our mental health flyers for gun boxes and firearm shops are a great way to connect people to resources that can help them. These flyers include the WTTA link for screenings. One thing that has been great is the number of accessory companies, gun stores, and trainers that have also participated in getting these flyers to consumers.
Our Cultural Competence course that brings mental health professionals into the range to learn the basics of firearms. This helps counselors and therapists get a better understanding of gun owners and the 2A community. Our course is the first of its kind and rewards practitioners with licensing board continuing education credits for their participation.
And in closing
These are just a few of our programs and activities. And as you can see, we have identified a cause, suicide by firearm, which clearly transcends our historical tribal differences. Through that cause, we have found the power to unite and help people across racial, economic, gender, and political lines.
I have spoken now to enough people to make the following statement with a high degree of confidence and certainty: we all agree that the time has come where we join together to build upon the things on which we agree rather than remain divided on the things we don’t.
The support so far from both the firearms industry and the mental health community has been humbling. Our efforts were even recognized by the President of the United States, which included us on a Suicide Prevention Taskforce for the VA. Our voice is being heard and we now have a spot at the table to help discuss innovative ways to save lives. Thanks to your support, we are making changes in the way people look at firearms and mental health. This little spark of ingenuity from two years ago has evolved so much in so very little time and I cannot wait to see where we are in another two, let alone 10 or 20.
Perhaps by then, one will be dying by suicide and that will truly be a reason to celebrate. Thank you for joining me — us, really — in this real, actual solution.
With immeasurable gratitude,
Founder and President of Walk The Talk America