U.S. teenagers with a history of mental health problems and suicidal tendencies are often able to easily access firearms in their homes, which could increase their risk of killing themselves, according to the results from a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry.
Although suicide doesn’t always dominate the national conversation about gun violence prevention, it’s actually the leading cause of gun deaths in the United States. A large body of scientific evidence suggests that the presence of guns in the home directly increases the risk of suicide, partly because people who are attempting to kill themselves are more likely to succeed when they opt for a gun.
Particularly in the mental health community, there’s been a renewed emphasis on safe gun storage to prevent kids struggling with depression from accidentally getting their hands on their parents’ firearms. Researchers at the University of Washington assumed that would mean that kids with suicidal tendencies would be more likely to live in homes where guns are out of reach.
But, after they reviewed the data from a national survey of more than 10,000 U.S. teens, they found that wasn’t actually the case. Kids struggling with mental health issues were just as likely to report easy access to guns as kids without the same risk factors for suicide. That even held true among teens who had made a previous attempt to kill themselves.
“Safe firearm storage is widely recommended by public health experts, professional medical societies, and gun rights organizations, especially for households where children might be suffering from mental heath and substance abuse issues that put them at increased risk for suicide or unintentional injury,” Joseph A. Simonetti, the study’s lead author, told Medical Research. “There is an obvious disconnect between generally agreed upon recommendations for firearm safety practices and what we’re actually doing in the community.”
Addressing this issue is incredibly inexpensive. Tools to keep guns away from kids, like trigger locks, cost less than $10 at major stores. Some cities have recently moved to make this type of safe storage mandatory.
Doctors can easily be part of the solution, too. In light of previous research that’s confirmed that many doctors aren’t asking about guns in the home — in some states, they’re even legally prohibited from doing so — Simonetti recommended finding ways to remove the barriers to those conversations with medical professionals.
“Importantly, several studies have shown that parents are not offended when providers ask about safe firearm storage during clinical encounters,” he pointed out.
Nonetheless, linking gun violence prevention with the medical community is often incredibly politically contentious. For instance, gun rights proponents blocked President Obama’s nominee for the vacant U.S. Surgeon General spot for months because of his public comments about gun control as a public health issue — even though that’s the mainstream position of every major medical association in the country. Dr. Vivek Murthy was finally confirmed by the Senate last month, in what was largely characterized as a victory over the National Rifle Association.