Mind on Health: The truth about guns at home and suicide

Leslie Penkunas//October 3, 2019

Mind on Health: The truth about guns at home and suicide

Leslie Penkunas//October 3, 2019

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death in children ages 10 to 14 and the second-leading cause of death in people ages 15 to 24. And half of those deaths involve a firearm.

These chilling statistics underscore the correlation between firearm availability and suicide, and the importance of gun safety. The U.S. has the highest per capita rate of gun ownership in the developed world, with 38 percent of households owning at least one gun. Statistics show that having firearms in the house is associated with a five-fold greater risk of suicide among all ages.

Firearms are a highly lethal method of suicide, successful 92 percent of the time, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry. Other forms of suicide have lower mortality rates: hanging at 78 percent, drowning at 67 percent, and intentional overdose at 2 percent. Research shows that 70 percent of those who decide to attempt suicide carry it out within an hour of the decision, usually during a crisis period. In the absence of firearms, a suicidal person in crisis will likely look for another less lethal means or possibly change their mind about attempting suicide. Ninety percent of people who survive suicide don’t go on to die by suicide.

All of this points to the importance of gun safety and controlling accessibility to firearms. According to a recent study, the relationship between firearm availability and firearm suicide is strongest for children and adolescents. It is extremely important to restrict access to guns kept in your home. And if a child or adolescent – or anyone in your home – struggles with depression or any mental health issue, I suggest you eliminate all risk by not having a gun in your home.

Many parents think their children don’t know they have guns at home, but they often do — even if it’s never been a topic of conversation. Raise the topic and take every possible precaution.

If you do keep guns in the house, here’s a safety checklist to follow:

  1. Make sure guns are locked away.
  2. Remove ammunition from the gun and store it in a separate location.
  3. Use a locking cabinet that requires smart technology such as fingerprint recognition to open it.

Research shows that doing these three things reduces the risk of suicide by firearm by 55 to 73 percent.

If your child is going to a friend’s house, it’s a good idea to ask the host parents if they have guns in their home. I know this can be awkward and difficult, but it could save your child’s life. Besides suicide, playing with and misfiring guns can prove lethal, too.

Have a conversation with your child about the danger of guns and the need to steer clear if they see one. Acknowledge that you have guns and set clear expectations that they should never handle them.

Ensuring these conversations take place is vital to protect your child, and make sure they do not become a heartbreaking statistic. We cannot afford to become complacent on this issue.

Daisy Shirk, D.O., is a psychiatrist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.