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FSU researchers find certain clinical steps can reduce firearm-related suicide

Ian Stanley, a doctoral student in the FSU Department of Psychology.
Ian Stanley, a doctoral student in the FSU Department of Psychology.

About 47,000 Americans die by suicide annually; more than half are by firearm. Now, researchers at Florida State University have found that certain clinical steps that encourage basic firearm safety could reduce that number.

Their study, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, focused on young adults with a history of suicidal thoughts and who reported firearm familiarity, such as gun ownership, access or intention to obtain a firearm.

Safe storage or limiting access to firearms can reduce the risk of suicide, and researchers sought to find the best means of getting at-risk individuals to cooperate with those procedures. They found that when clinicians emphasized that limited access is temporary during periods of elevated suicide risk, individuals were more likely to report intentions to safely store their firearms.

Ian Stanley, a doctoral student in clinical psychology, said tackling the issue of firearm safety in the context of suicide prevention can be a difficult topic.

“Firearms are an important part of many people’s identity,” he said. “One way to be sensitive to the concerns of gun owners is by emphasizing that discussions about safety are not meant to disparage responsible firearm ownership. Instead, safety discussions are about preventing suicide by making the environment safer — for example, storing guns unloaded, using gun locks, placing guns in locked safes, or, if state law allows, transferring guns to a loved one or gun shop for safekeeping.”

Stanley said despite the prominent role firearms play in suicides and substantial evidence that the safe storage of firearms is an effective prevention strategy, that very few clinicians broach the topic with their patients.

“Unfortunately, research has repeatedly shown that few clinicians discuss firearm safety with their patients,” he said. “Yet, there’s substantial evidence that reducing access to firearms can be an impactful suicide prevention strategy.”

Stanley pointed out that the findings of this study, while preliminary, are promising and that additional research into firearm suicide prevention is essential.

“The reality is that many of our patients, including patients thinking about suicide, own firearms,” he said. “Many firearm owners already engage in safe storage practices. For those who don’t, one goal is to figure out how clinicians can effectively encourage safe firearm storage practices in ways that are acceptable to patients.”

The study was funded by the American Psychological Association and the Military Suicide Research Consortium, which is an effort helmed by the Department of Defense.

Professors Natalie J. Sachs-Ericsson and Thomas E. Joiner and FSU graduate assistants Melanie A. Hom and Austin J. Gallyer co-authored the study with Stanley.

For more information, visit https://psy.fsu.edu/

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).