Nearly 20% of children and young people at risk for suicide say there's a gun in their home, new research shows.
And among these youth, 15% know how to get their hands on both the gun and bullets.
"That's a volatile mix: kids at risk and the means to complete suicide," said Stephen Teach, who will present the study Monday at a meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies in Washington.
Pediatricians devoted special attention to gun violence at the meeting, including a special symposium Saturday. Thomas McInerny, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, also focused on gun violence in his plenary address.
More than 1,900 young people in the U.S. ages 5 to 19 committed suicide in 2010. Nearly half of these suicides involved firearms, said Matthew Miller, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, who spoke at the symposium. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among teens ages 15 to 19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In Teach's study, doctors interviewed 524 young people ages 10 to 21 who were treated in pediatric emergency rooms, either for a physical or psychiatric health issue.
These findings may actually underestimate the real risk, said Miller, who wasn't involved in the survey.
Research suggests that about one-third of children live in homes with a firearm, Miller said. And about 1.5 million children live in a household where guns are kept loaded and unlocked, Miller said. It's possible that some young people interviewed for the survey were unaware that their parents own guns.
Guns are the most lethal form of suicide. According to the CDC, 85% of suicide attempts with guns prove fatal, compared with 1% to 2% of attempts made by slashing one's wrists or taking pills.
Reducing teens' access to guns can be life-saving, Miller said. Studies show that many teen suicide attempts are impulsive. One-fourth of teens who survived a suicide attempt said they thought of suicide just five minutes before making the attempt.
For many people, suicide is a passing urge. Fewer than 10% of those who survive a suicide attempt go on to kill themselves, Miller said.
The findings underscore the importance of screening young people for depression and suicidal thoughts, as well asking about guns in the home, said Teach, associate chief of emergency medicine at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Teach and his colleagues have developed a four-item questionnaire that can be used to screen all teens who come into the ER or primary practice clinics.
Screening all teens is important, because up to 40% of youths who kill themselves have no known mental illness, said study co-author Jeffrey Bridge, an associate professor of pediatrics at Ohio State University. In the survey, doctors found that nearly half of young ER patients with psychiatric complaints were at risk for suicide, as were about 10% of those who had a medical or surgical issue.
According to research by the CDC, 8% of high school students have attempted suicide in the past year. In comparison, less than 1% of adults ages 18 to 54 have attempted suicide in the past 12 months.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that doctors ask children's families about guns in the house and talk about ways to keep kids safe, McInerny said.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation agrees about keeping guns secured, spokesman Bill Brassard said. Parents should store firearms locked, unloaded and stored separately from ammunition, which also should be locked, he said.
Research shows that keeping a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide by nearly five times, Miller said.
Yet educating parents about the risk of guns and suicide can help.
In a survey of 106 parents of severely depressed adolescents, doctors asked if there were guns in the home and, if so, counseled parents about safety.
Two years later, 27% of the parents who received the counseling had taken the guns out of their homes. Among parents who weren't counseled -- because they didn't own guns at the time of the interview -- 17% acquired guns.
In the past two years, six states have considered bills to prevent doctors from asking about guns in the home or recording that information into medical records. Only Florida's bill passed. That law never went into effect, however, because it was blocked by a judge.
Liz Szabo, USA TODAY