Gun Suicides Are Rising Sharply Among American Youth

By Amy Norton
Health Day reporter

MONDAY, June 14, 2021 (HealthDay News) – A growing number of young Americans, including children, are committing suicide by using guns, according to a new study.

Researchers found that between 2008 and 2018, gun suicides showed an “alarming” increase in Americans aged 5 to 24. And although these suicides remain rare among children, the rate among children under 15 quadrupled during the study period.

It is well known that youth suicide has increased in the United States. Last year, a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented a 57% increase in suicides among those aged 10 to 24 between 2007 and 2018.

The new study looked specifically at gun suicide, which accounts for more than half of suicide deaths in the United States, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The study found that between 2008 and 2018, these suicides increased by 50% among 15 to 24 year olds. In 2018, there were seven such deaths per 100,000 Americans in this age group.

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Suicides by firearms were much less common among children aged 5 to 14. But the relative increase was striking – quadrupling from 0.12 per 100,000 in 2008 to just under 0.5 per 100,000 in 2018.

While these numbers are small, the trend is “very worrying,” said lead researcher Dr Sarah Wood of the Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

“We wanted to open people’s eyes to the fact that this is happening,” she said.

The reasons for these trends, however, are not clear.

“This is just descriptive data,” said Wood. “They don’t tell us the ‘why’.”

But there are probably several reasons – possibly a combination of worsening mental health among young Americans, greater access to guns and other factors, she added.

The findings underscore the fact that guns are a public health problem, according to Dr. Ken Duckworth, chief medical officer of the National Nonprofit Alliance on Mental Illness in Arlington, Virginia.

“We know that access to guns is a risk factor for suicide,” Duckworth said.

There is also a correlation between the number of gun owners in U.S. states and suicide rates, he noted. Research shows that suicide rates tend to be highest in states with the most gun owners and lowest in states with the fewest gun owners.

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Duckworth, who reviewed the results, said the study provides important information.

“We know that youth suicide is on the rise,” he said. “It’s looking at the means.”

The results – recently published in the Annals of Public Health and Research – are based on CDC data collected between 1999 and 2018.

At the start of this period, Wood said, gun suicides among young Americans were on the decline.

“Then in 2007 you see this sharp upward turn,” Wood said.

This matches what studies, including the CDC report, found for youth suicide in general. Explanations have remained elusive, although various theories have been put forward including a role for social media.

When it comes to gun suicides, it’s obvious that the issue of access to guns needs to be resolved, according to Wood’s team.

To ignore the role of guns, they write, would be to ignore cigarettes in the fight against lung cancer.

For parents, Duckworth said, the most important thing is to seek help for any symptoms of depression their children are experiencing and to assure them that they can still talk to them.

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If there is a gun in the house, he added, safety precautions become even more vital.

Wood said parents with concerns about their child’s mental health can speak to their pediatrician and consult local community resources.

The research dovetails with the release of a new CDC study on June 11, indicating that the rate of teenage suicide attempts jumped by half during the coronavirus pandemic.

CDC researchers said emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts by girls ages 12 to 17 increased 26% in the summer of 2020 and 50% in the winter of 2021, compared to to 2019. Emergency room trips related to suspected suicide attempts among boys in this age group and young adults aged 18 to 25 have remained stable during the pandemic.

Duckworth said other studies have documented a particularly significant mental health toll from the pandemic on young Americans.

But, he added, there is a long delay in obtaining reliable data on suicides.

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More information

The National Alliance on Mental Illness has more information on suicide prevention.

SOURCES: Sarah Wood, MD, Acting Dean and Senior Associate Dean, Education, Schmidt College of Medicine, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton; Ken Duckworth, MD, Chief Medical Officer, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Arlington, Va .; Annals of Public Health and Research, May 31, 2021, online; Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, June 11, 2021

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