Suicide risk: Docs must discuss gun safety with patients


Physician organizations have taken a stand against gun violence and have called it a “public health crisis,” but many gun deaths are suicides—an overlooked problem in the healthcare sphere, experts have argued.

Indeed, of the more than 33,000 firearm deaths recorded in 2014 in the National Vital Statistics Report, nearly two-thirds were suicides, according to a commentary about firearm violence in JAMA Internal Medicine.

One way to solve the gun violence crisis is to encourage physicians to counsel patients, a skill that must be taught during medical training, wrote Chana A. Sacks, M.D., an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital, in a second opinion piece.

Open discussions between physicians and patients about gun safety, despite laws in some states preventing such dialogue, are necessary, according to Sacks. She noted that a 2014 American College of Physicians Survey found that about 66 percent of respondents believe doctors have the right to advise patients on ways to prevent gun violence, but 58 percent said they never asked their patients about gun ownership.

“Counseling about gun safety is not political—no more so than a physician counseling a patient about cutting down on sugary beverages is an act of declaring support for New York City’s attempted ban on large-sized sodas,” she wrote.

Doctors may have even more reason now to counsel patients about suicide prevention. In the week since Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, the number of calls to national suicide hotlines have skyrocketed, according to CNN. The Trevor Project, for instance, which provides crisis and suicide prevention support for the LGBT community, has seen its calls double since the election and remain there, according to the report.


Another way doctors and other health professionals can potentially intervene is by partnering with gun owner organizations, according to a separate JAMA Internal Medicine piece.

In New Hampshire, for example—where more than 85 percent of gun deaths are suicides—firearms retailers, gun rights advocates, public health experts and mental health professionals have met regularly since 2009 to discuss the role that gun sales play in suicide rates. The coalition developed materials that promote gun safety in the home and educate gun owners on the signs of suicide in case they, or someone in their household, are at risk, according to the article.

Since then, similar partnerships have sprouted up in Maryland, Utah and Washington state, according to the article. Bringing gun advocates into the discussion helps minimize potential controversy.

“From our experience, it is precisely by creating collaborations between firearm retailers, guns rights advocates, health professionals and suicide prevention groups that we can defuse the controversy, listen to one another and together learn how to best reduce the use of guns in suicide attempts,” the authors wrote.