Around twenty percent of adolescents in the U.S. who are considered “suicidal” have guns in their homes, according to a recent study published at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in Washington, DC.

In addition, the researchers revealed that 15 percent of those at risk of suicide know how to use the guns and the ammunition and have access to both.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, among young people between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the second leading cause of death.

Around half of teenage suicides are carried out using a firearm.

Suicide is a serious public health issue worldwide. It is the most prevalent cause of death in female teenagers and the second most common among male teenagers after road traffic accidents. Official estimates reveal that suicide causes close to 164,000 deaths every year.

The researchers carried out the study to create and develop a new tool for doctors to use which can help identify teenagers and young adults who require some form of intervention to prevent them from harming themselves. They asked the youths about their access to firearms as well as ammunition.

Case fatality rate by method of suicide in the USA – September 2011 (source: CDC)
Suicide methods

Stephen J. Teach, MD, MPH, FAAP, associate chief in the Division of Emergency Medicine at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC, and co-author who will be presenting the study at the PAS meeting, said:

“For more than 1.5 million adolescents, the ED is their primary point of contact with the health care system, which makes the ED an important place for identifying youth at risk for suicide.”

Many people lack the ability or do not know how to go about asking young people about suicide, therefore a screening tool could prove to be extremely useful in improving detection.

The senior author of the study, Lisa M. Horowitz, PhD, MPH, staff scientist/pediatric psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md., said:

“According to our data, when asked their opinion, nearly all of the kids in our study were in favor of suicide screening in the ED. Our study shows that if you ask kids directly about suicide, they will tell you what they are thinking.”

A total of 524 youths aged 10 to 21 participated in the study, they were all seen for either medical or psychiatric complaints at various pediatric emergency departments. A 17-item questionnaire was given to each of the participants which helped them develop a four-question screening tool called “Ask Suicide-Screening Questions (ASQ)”. The tool will be used for all patients visiting pediatric EDs.

Co-author and youth suicide expert Jeffrey A. Bridge, PhD, principal investigator at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and associate professor of pediatrics at The Ohio State University, added:

“While many youths who kill themselves have mental health disorders, up to 40 percent of youths who kill themselves have no known mental illness. Therefore, it is important to screen all children and adolescents for suicide, regardless of the reason they are visiting the ED.”

29 percent of the participants were at risk for suicide and a further 17 percent revealed that they had guns at home. Among those who were at risk for suicide an overwhelming 31 percent said they knew how to use the guns and 31 percent said they had access to ammunition.

Dr. Bridge concluded: “This study highlights the importance of parents understanding the risks of having guns in their homes. Being at risk for suicide and having access to firearms is a volatile mix. These conversations need to take place in the ED with families of children at risk for suicide.”

Tragically, according to a recent study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, despite most suicidal teens being treated for mental health issues, a great many of them still intend to commit suicide, suggesting that these teens are not being given the right treatment.

Written by Joseph Nordqvist