"A gun doesn't cause the suicidality, but a suicidal person with access to a gun is far more likely to die from an attempt than someone using another method...It's the combination of accessibility, familiarity, lethality, and really short time frame that's offered by a firearm." - Elaine Frank, director of Counseling on Access to Lethal Means.
As I stated in my first post on this subject, guns kill rural children at a rate almost equal to urban youths. However, while most urban children die from gun homicides, rural youth tend to die from gun accidents and suicides. This post will focus on rural youth who use firearms to commit suicide.
In 2011, suicide was the third leading cause of death among individuals aged 1-19 and the second leading cause of death among individuals ages 10-19, with 2,089 youths dying by suicide that year. Of these deaths, 41 percent (850 individuals) used a firearm.
Studies have shown that many teenage suicide attempts are impulsive, as can be seen by the fact that of teens who survived an attempt to kill themselves, one quarter of them said they had only thought of attempting suicide approximately five minutes before making the attempt. This impulsivity can be particularly lethal in cases in which the individual uses a firearm in their suicide attempt. According to a report by Madeline Drexler, the editor of Harvard Public Health, approximately 85 percent of suicide attempts that use a firearm end in death. This is in contrast to a drug overdose, the most widely used method for attempting suicide, which only proves to be fatal less than 3 percent of the time.
According to a study by JAMA Pediatrics which looked at the "Widening Rural-Urban Disparities in Youth Suicides" from 1996 to 2010, rural suicides were almost double the rate in urban areas, regardless of the method used. Additionally, the study showed suicide by firearm and hanging/suffocation were "disproportionately higher in rural areas compared with urban areas."
The (Potential) Reasons
One possible explanation for the higher rate of suicides in rural communities generally may be a lack of available and accessible mental health services in these areas. Indeed, of the 1,669 areas that have been federally designated as having a shortage of mental health professionals, over 85 percent are in rural areas. Additionally, this lack of mental health care is even more pronounced in pediatric mental health services as, due to the shortage of specialized mental health care professionals, primary care physicians are often the ones providing mental health services in rural communities. Additionally, rural families often have lower incomes and are less likely to have mental health benefits included in their health insurance coverage.
This lack of easily accessible mental health care often means that rural individuals must travel longer distances to reach these services and/or face longer waiting times. Both of these factors may mean that individuals living in rural communities "may enter care later, with more serious symptoms, and require more expensive and intensive treatments than do their urban peers." Finally, the cultural barriers preventing rural people from receiving mental health care should be considered as often rural communities still experience a stigma regarding mental health care. This stigma may lead to suicides as people in these communities often pride themselves on their self-reliance, which compounded with the lack of anonymity in rural places, can lead to individuals not seeking mental health services when they may need them.
Another explanation for the higher rates of suicides in rural communities may be due to geographic and social isolation, which may mean that rural individuals lack adequate support systems. Additionally, for younger people living in rural communities, their feelings of isolation may be heightened by the fact that many of their peers may have left the area for education and employment opportunities in more urban areas.
The final factor I will mention in regards to the higher rates of suicides in rural communities is the often greater access to firearms in these areas. Gun ownership tends to be more common in rural areas. Indeed, according to a 2014 study, 51 percent of rural people had guns in their home compared to 25 percent of people in urban areas and 36 percent in suburban areas. While drug overdose may be the most common form of attempted suicide in the US, guns are the most common mode of suicide in America. This is unsurprising given their lethality. Indeed, a "gun in the home raises the suicide risk for everyone: gun owner, spouse and children alike."
So, like the quote at the beginning of this post says, it does not appear as if owning a gun actually increases the risk of attempting suicide. However, statistically it is much more likely that a person attempting suicide with a gun will succeed in their attempt. For rural children and youth who have easy access to guns and who often impulsively attempt to commit suicide with a firearm, this particularly lethal means can be devastating.
Therefore, while factors like lack of mental health care and feelings of isolation may contribute to the higher rates of attempted and successful suicides in rural communities, guns (which do not allow for a change of heart or mind) do play a large role in ensuring the "success" of a suicide attempt.