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When researchers study people who attempted suicide, they often link that behavior to certain factors in their lives. It's common to find depression, for example. One study finds a factor even bigger - access to a gun. The question here is whether firearms alter the odds that a suicidal thought will be carried out. Youth Radio's Desmond Meagley reports.
DESMOND MEAGLEY, BYLINE: When you're managing a mental health issue, home isn't always a safe place.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So I know that in my aunt's house, there are three guns in the basement.
MEAGLEY: This 23-year-old asked that we not use his name. He moved to Oakland a few years ago from the East Coast. He goes back to visit his family once a year and stays with his aunt, who owns several guns. Knowing those guns are available to him is a problem. He tells me he's tried to commit suicide nine times over the past 13 years.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Having tools for suicide completion totally makes it way more tempting to attempt to complete suicide.
MEAGLEY: He starts preparing mentally months in advance of visiting his aunt, making what he calls safety contracts with his therapist and his friends. His situation is more common than you might think.
LAUREN HARTMAN: So I see here on the questionnaire you checked yes to having exposure to guns.
MEAGLEY: Dr. Lauren Hartman works for managed-care provider Kaiser Permanente. Some states, like Missouri and Florida, have laws forbidding doctors from asking patients about gun access and ownership. But that's not the case in California. To screen for potential health risks, Kaiser asks all teen patients to answer a list of questions, including this one - do you, your parents or any of your friends have access to a gun? Let's say you answer yes. Dr. Hartman walks us through this scenario as Youth Radio's Kasey Saeturn role-plays a patient.
HARTMAN: Where is the gun kept in your home?
KASEY SAETURN, BYLINE: (As patient) Typically, like, on top of the closet.
HARTMAN: So the gun isn't locked up?
SAETURN: (As patient) No.
MEAGLEY: That's a red flag for Dr. Hartman.
HARTMAN: So Kasey, if it's OK with you, I would like to talk to your parents about how to keep the gun safely at home.
MEAGLEY: Dr. Hartman estimates 15 to 20 percent of her patients say they have access to a gun. And when they do, she takes it seriously. A recent study from the University of California, San Francisco suggests that people with access to a firearm are almost three times more likely to commit suicide than those without access. And how often do Dr. Hartman's patients say they have thoughts about harming themselves?
HARTMAN: That, unfortunately, gets a lot of yeses.
MEAGLEY: Experts say suicidal ideation isn't necessarily dangerous. That is, roughly 20 percent of people say they think about suicide from time to time. But when someone also has access to a gun, the possibility of suicide gets a lot more real. In a study from the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 4 survivors of nearly lethal suicide attempts estimated that once they decided to kill themselves, they took less than five minutes to try. The young man we heard from earlier recalls telling his sister how lonely and sad he was feeling when he was in first grade.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: She was like, you're too young to feel like that, and you should stop feeling like that.
MEAGLEY: It's not unusual for kids to struggle with mental health. Some researchers say that teaching preadolescent children coping skills or how to handle overwhelming emotions can prevent serious mental health crises later in life.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Kind of wish someone had actually asked me what I was feeling versus assumed that I was doing OK.
MEAGLEY: But even though he still has suicidal thoughts at times, he says the way he reacts to his emotions has changed.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I think as I grew older, I can see farther into the future.
MEAGLEY: Since learning how to avoid and cope with his triggers, he says he's at a place where he no longer sees suicide as inevitable. For NPR News, I'm Desmond Meagley.
INSKEEP: You hear that story from Youth Radio on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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