Almost 20 percent of suicidal teenagers have guns in their home, according to a new study.
That's a worry, researchers says, because having access to firearms makes it much more likely that a person who attempts suicide will complete it.
"Half of all completed suicides in teenagers involved a firearm," says Stephen Teach, associate chief of emergency medicine at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "Suicidal thinking and access to firearms can be a very volatile mix."
Teach, along with doctors at Boston Children's Hospital and Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, surveyed teenagers and young adults in the emergency room to create a new quick screening test for suicide risk.
Many teenagers and young adults only have contact with the health care system in the ER, so the researchers saw it as a chance to find people at risk. Up to 40 percent of young people who kill themselves had no known mental illness.
They screened 524 patients, and found that 98 of them were at risk of suicide. Most of them were pretty upfront about it, saying that they wanted to die or were better off dead.
All told, 19 percent of the young patients were suicidal. When asked about guns, 17 percent of the suicidal patients say they had guns in their house. One-third of them said they knew how to gain access to the guns and ammunition.
This poses two challenges for doctors, nurses and parents, Teach says. One is to get young people the mental health care they need when they're suicidal.
The second is to keep them safe. "That includes keeping them away from firearms," he says.
Doctors and nurses should "seriously consider asking their patients about firearms in the home," Teach says, "particularly when they show signs of severe mental illness, depression, and suicidal thinking."
Suicide is the second major cause of death in young people ages 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The research was presented Monday at the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting in Washington, D.C.