A national group of pediatricians is recommending that all children aged 11 to 21 should get screened for depression along with their annual physical checkup. The revised preventative care guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also advise parents of children who are diagnosed with depression and at risk for suicide to remove any firearms and ammunition from their homes.
Doctors from around the world have long advised mental health screenings as a way of catching serious behavioral disorders before they spiral out of control. “Unfortunately, most people don’t address mental health issues until they are drastically interfering with their lives,” said Dr. Nizar El-Khalili, medical director of an Indiana clinic, in a 2013 interview with the Detroit Free Press. “If they were just more aware of mental health from the start, problems could be avoided long before it complicates their lives and costs them thousands of dollars.”
Under the new AAP guidelines, pediatricians should screen children for serious signs of depression and refer them to a social worker or specialist if they find cause for concern. About one in five American children is at risk for a mental health disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), including 1.2 million children between the ages of three and 17 who grapple with depression.
Doctors are also advised to broach the topic of gun ownership for children who do suffer from depression. In fact, the new guidelines state that simply locking up a gun isn’t enough to ensure children’s safety — the firearms or ammunition should be removed from the residence entirely.
Indeed, people with serious mental problems are at a considerably increased risk for suicide. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that injuries from firearms send 7,000 kids to the ER every year and that 3,000 children die from gunshot wounds before they can receive appropriate care. A separate 2013 study found that just a one percent increase in gun ownership in a household led to anywhere between a 0.5 percent and 0.9 percent increase in suicides.
This isn’t the first time AAP has taken a stand on gun violence prevention. The group has repeatedly warned that firearms pose one of the biggest public health risks to children. To mark the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy, AAP sent a letter to Congress urging stricter gun safety laws.
“This should not be a political issue. Gun violence is a public health issue that profoundly affects children and their families,” said AAP president Dr. Thomas K. McInerny in a statement. “We know what works — strong laws to enforce background checks and safe storage. But our elected leaders need to find a way forward to protect our children.”
A new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) found that, if current trends hold, gun violence will surpass car accidents as the leading cause of death among young people by 2015.