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

More people are openly discussing their struggles with mental illness, but a new Ohio State led study finds we may be asking the wrong questions for those at risk of suicide, particularly gun owners.

The study, published in the American Medical Association journal reveals that gun owners are less likely to share their suicidal thoughts although data shows guns are the way most people end their lives.

“Things as simple as using gun safes, gun locks, trigger locks; placing these barriers between someone and ready access to a loaded weapon oftentimes slows the process down long enough that a person moves out of that peak crisis,“ said OSU clinical psychologist Craig Bryan.

Dr. Bryan recommends using a wider range of questions that are more tailored to the individual.

“Part of the reason that we've not been better at preventing suicide is we always kind of try to find the one path that everybody follows but there is no single path, there are multiple paths and we need to customize different strategies, interventions and prevention approaches for those different pathways,“ said Bryan.

Dr. Bryan said there is help for gun owners who have suicidal tendencies.

“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,” said Dr. Bryan. “Consider reaching out to someone that you trust; a fellow gun owner, a friend, a family member, a loved one, and saying 'Hey maybe now's not the time to have ready access to firearms. Can you help me lock them up? Would you hold them or babysit them for a while?'“

No one knows how important it is to identify those in peak crisis more than the Heck family. Jeff Heck's daughter committed suicide in 2019, and he and his wife Donna have now started a non-profit in her honor to help reach others before it is too late.

“It's that idea about trying to provide people resources and help and hope, and really an understanding that you can't see tomorrow, you just got to get through the moment, and if you can get through the moment you can be here tomorrow and you can live a life and you can live a good life and you can you can overcome,” said Jeff during an interview with his wife by his side.

Dr. Bryan said assessments should be amended 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 said combining more comprehensive questions with simple barriers to immediate gun access can save lives.

Immediate help and resources are available for anyone who is in crisis. You can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255), or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Williams was a reporter for WOSU. Natasha is an Emmy Award-winning journalist and has more than 20 years of television news and radio experience.