Study: Mental health assessments often fail to identify suicidal ideation among gun owners

Researchers say expanded inquiries tailored to individual situations can save lives

(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – While the stigma around mental health is improving and more people are open to discussing their struggles, a new study by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center finds the standard questions to identify those at risk often fall short, particularly for those with access to firearms. The study, published in JAMA Network Open, found that gun owners are less likely than non-gun owners to report suicidal ideation, even though firearms are the most common method of suicide.

“Not everyone experiences suicidal ideation in the same way. So, maybe our traditional ways of asking about suicidal thoughts are incomplete,” said Craig Bryan a clinical psychologist and director of the Division of Recovery and Resilience at Ohio State’s Department of Pyschiatry and Behavioral Health. “Just a simple shift in questioning, adding one more different perspective or a different angle to ask about suicidal thoughts could potentially help us to identify people who are in a vulnerable state.” 

Bryan says this includes amending assessments to go beyond asking someone if they’ve thought about suicide by asking if they’ve considered a method of suicide, which gun owners are more likely to have an answer to. He says combining more comprehensive questions with simple barriers to immediate gun access, such as locking firearms in a safe or asking someone they trust to store them, can save lives.

“Suicidal crises tend to come on suddenly, but don’t last very long. So, if we limit access to lethal methods during that short window of time, that could potentially prevent a suicide,” Bryan said. 

It’s also important to know how to access immediate help and resources for anyone who is in crisis. That help is available 24/7 by calling 800-273-TALK or texting 741741.

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Jeff and Donna Heck lost their daughter Dani to suicide in 2019. Their non-profit organization, 33 Forever, supports research at The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center that explores how asking the right questions can better identify those at risk for suicide – especially those with access to guns, who are less likely to report suicidal ideation.

After losing her daughter Dani to suicide, Donna Heck is comforted by the words she had tattooed on her arm in her daughter’s handwriting. They also inspire Donna in her mission to prevent suicide, including her support of research at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center that explores how different groups respond to questions about suicidal ideation.

Jeff Heck and his wife Donna started 33 Forever, a non-profit organization inspired by their daughter Dani, who lost her life to suicide. The non-proft organization supports research at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center that aims to prevent suicide by tailoring mental health assessments for individual perspectives and situations.

Craig Bryan collaborates with his colleagues at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center about including more comprehensive questions on mental health assessments. Bryan led a new study that found gun owners are less likely to report suicidal ideation, prompting action to tailor questions to individual situations and perspectives.

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