Teens often plan their suicide for less than five minutes, an impulse that can be fatal with a gun. An injury prevention researcher explains how to help keep kids safe.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for 14- to 24-year-olds in the United States.
Sadly, most teens who commit suicide are acting on impulse. They are often driven by a temporary problem, such as the end of their first romantic relationship.
But when highly lethal guns are involved, there's often no second chance or opportunity for parents to intervene before young people attempt to harm themselves.
"The only way to be sure to prevent a firearm suicide is to prevent a child or teen from having access to highly lethal firearms," says Patrick Carter, M.D., a Michigan Medicine emergency medicine physician and firearm injury prevention researcher.
Carter has spent years studying gun-related deaths and injuries. Suicides comprise a large percentage of those deaths, with guns used in nearly half of all completed adolescent suicides.
When it comes to prevention, learning from those who survived a firearm suicide attempt can help. By interviewing adolescent survivors, researchers have learned that most cases involve an impulsive teen.
In fact, 25 percent of teens who have attempted firearm suicide and survived spent fewer than five minutes planning the act; the majority of attempts took less than one hour. In more than three-quarters of cases, the handgun involved came from the adolescent's home or the home of a relative.
"What that tells us is that one key to preventing such deaths is reducing access to firearms among teenagers," says Carter. "If children and teens did not have access to a firearm, especially at the time of an emotional crisis, many devastating deaths could have been prevented."
Suicide warning signs to know
For parents who suspect their child may be depressed or going through an emotionally challenging time, it may be time to completely remove all firearms from the home.
This could be as simple as giving them to another family member or friend to store safely in a locked cabinet during the high-risk period — or getting rid of them altogether. Police in most towns have a way to collect and safely dispose of unwanted firearms.
Your child's pediatrician can help identify and treat depression and suicidal feelings. Still, the following signs should warrant discussion of removing guns from the home:
Sadness or frequent crying
Irritability or anger
Withdrawal from friends and family
Poor performance in school, most notably a sudden drop in grades
Increased use of alcohol or drugs
You should also be aware of potential emotional stressors in your child's life, including breakups, tension with friends, difficulty with schoolwork or feelings of inadequacy or jealousy. These may trigger feelings of depression or even suicidality.
There is also a strong correlation between feelings of depression, substance abuse and gun-related injuries or deaths. If your teen has a known or suspected substance abuse problem, removing guns from the home is advised. Alcohol and many other narcotics are not only known depressants, they also inhibit judgment.
If removing firearms isn't an option
Too often, adolescents commit suicide using guns belonging to their parents or a close relative.
These guns were often stored unlocked or the child knew how to access the locked cabinet (either by having the key or knowing the combination).
If removing all guns isn't an option, review these tips for safe and proper storage:
Keep firearms behind lock and key. Guns should be unloaded and stored in a locked cabinet. Ammunition should be stored in a separate locked cabinet. Keep keys to both in a place inaccessible to children. Trigger locks or cable locks, which disable the firing mechanism, are an appropriate low-cost alternative. However, a locked firearm cabinet remains the best option for families that decide to keep a firearm in the home.
Don't assume hiding your guns is enough. Research has shown that 3 out of every 4 children between the ages of 5 and 14 years of age know where firearms are hidden in the home. Furthermore, 1 in 3 children have handled a firearm in the home, many without their parent's knowledge. Even if you think you've chosen a hiding spot your child doesn't know about, they're likely to know how to find the firearm — and are likely old enough to handle and fire a gun.
Be cautious with guns marketed as "childproof." Firearm manufacturers have introduced new technology intended to make guns harder for children to operate. These features are a great way to improve the safety of a firearm and have potential to save lives, but they're not fail proof. Whether a gun has this technology or not, firearms should always be properly stored in a locked safe to prevent access.
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