At least 50 percent of suicidal patients visiting the emergency departments (EDs) are not asked about their access to weapons like firearms, despite the existing federal guidelines, new university research says.

In an article published in Depression and Anxiety on March 17, researchers from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus stressed that many ERs missed the opportunity to help patients who have committed or are thinking about committing suicide by failing to perform a lethal means assessment, which could have helped them determine access to weapons like firearms and initiate safety planning and suicide intervention.

For their three-phase study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the researchers interviewed 1,358 adult patients and looked at their medical charts, those patients having attempted or thought of suicide and visited eight EDs in more than five states between 2010 and 2013.  

According to lead author Dr Emmy Betz, upon analysis, the researchers "found in about 50 percent of cases there is no documentation by the doctor that anyone asked the patients about firearms access." 

Around 25 percent admitted having at least one unlocked and loaded gun in their home. Of the 337 surveyed patients who were later discharged, 55 percent of them weren't interviewed by doctors about lethal access, even if 13 percent of them owned or could get hold of at least one firearm.

Betz emphasized the huge role ED doctors play in suicide prevention, especially since "multiple ED visits appear to be a risk factor for suicide and many suicide victims are seen in the ED shortly before death." If only doctors would perform the assessment, they could prevent suicide deaths by as much as 20 percent annually by encouraging families to remove firearms from their homes or place them in an undisclosed location, as well as keep them unloaded and locked at all times.

However, doctors are apprehensive to do the assessment since they are not sure if the guidelines work or how to ask the questions. Dr. Betz reminds them that it is legal to question a suicidal patient if it allows them to provide suicide intervention.

According to a 2011 CDC report, 41,149 people committed suicide, but more than 20,000 did so with firearms.

Photo: Helen Harrop | Flickr

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