Public health researchers say doctors should act to prevent gun-related suicide

By: 

  • Misti Crane
May 11, 2020
signs with encouraging words

Health care providers have significant opportunities to prevent gun-related suicides – both in the exam room and as advocates for policy change, according to a trio of researchers from The Ohio State University College of Public Health. 

In an article published online today (May 11, 2020) in the Annals of Family Medicine, the researchers point to a troubling 23 percent increase in the firearm suicide rate from 2005 to 2017 and encourage a robust response from individual physicians and from the associations to which they belong. 

Among their recommendations: 

  • A renewed focus on screenings for depression and suicide risk, especially among adolescents.
  • Routine screening and counseling regarding firearm safety, particularly for those patients who are struggling with mental illness.
  • Promotion of mental health screenings and firearm discussions by physician groups including the Academy of Family Physicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • Broader physician involvement in advocacy regarding gun policies, including dissemination of the data on gun-related suicides.
  • More research into the relationship between firearms and suicide. 

“This call-to-action is imperative. The United States has failed to make meaningful and appropriate policy changes to promote gun safety and limit availability so that we can reduce firearm suicide and firearm deaths,” said co-author Thomas Wickizer, a professor of health services management and policy at Ohio State who also holds an appointment at the University of Washington. 

Wickizer, along with doctoral student Evan Goldstein and Laura Prater, formerly of Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, recently published a related paper showing that increases in behavioral health services would have only a minor influence on reducing firearm suicides. 

They found that a 10 percent increase in behavioral health workforce jobs in a state was associated with an estimated 1.2 percent decrease in the rate of firearm suicides. A 40 percent increase in mental health care providers and substance misuse specialists would quadruple the firearm suicide rate decrease – to 4.8 percent, they concluded. Extrapolating on their findings, the researchers concluded that even eliminating all federally designated mental health workforce shortage areas in the country would reduce gun-related suicide rates by less than 5 percent. 

Based on that statistical analysis, and taking account of the salaries for mental health professionals, it could cost as much as $15 million to increase the size of Ohio’s behavioral health care workforce enough to prevent one firearm suicide, the researchers have estimated. 

“While our research suggests that more behavioral health treatment workers might be somewhat helpful in reducing suicides, our findings also may underscore an important reality – investing in improving firearm safety initiatives and limiting gun access for at-risk individuals may provide a greater return on investment,” Goldstein said.

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About The Ohio State University College of Public Health

The Ohio State University College of Public Health is a leader in educating students, creating new knowledge through research, and improving the livelihoods and well-being of people in Ohio and beyond.  The College's divisions include biostatistics, environmental health sciences, epidemiology, health behavior and health promotion, and health services management and policy.   It is ranked 24th among all colleges of public health in the U.S. by U.S. News and World Report, and also includes the top 7-ranked MHA degree program.  The College provides leadership and expertise for Ohio and the world through its Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Evaluation Studies (HOPES) and Center for Public Health Practice (CPHP).