Military service members who conceal their suicidal thoughts are also more likely to store their guns unsafely, a new study reveals.
“These findings highlight a real problem with our suicide prevention system,” said Michael Anestis, lead author of the study and executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
“We know that firearms account for the large majority of suicide deaths within the military and that unsecured firearms at home dramatically increase the risk for suicide," Anestis said in a Rutgers news release.
"Here, we found that suicidal service members less likely to be seen as high risk — those that hide their thoughts from others and avoid behavioral health care — tend to be the service members with the most ready access to their firearms,” he added.
For the study, the researchers surveyed more than 700 gun-owning service members. These included active-duty service members throughout all military branches and those in the National Guard and Reserves.
The investigators focused on 180 service members who had experienced suicidal thoughts within the past year and another group of 85 service members who had experienced suicidal thoughts in the past month.
Surveys asked whether they had ever told anyone about their suicidal thoughts, if they had attended any behavioral health sessions within the past three months and the specific ways they store their personal firearms.
The researchers found that service members with undisclosed past-year suicidal thoughts stored their guns at home more often and with a locking device in place less often compared to those who had shared their suicidal thoughts with others.
The research team also found that those with past-year suicidal thoughts who hadn't attended any recent behavioral health sessions stored their firearms without locking devices more often. However, they also stored their guns loaded less frequently.
Those who had experienced undisclosed suicidal thoughts in the past month used locking devices less frequently. Those who had avoided behavioral health also used locking devices less frequently but were less likely to store firearms loaded.
“What this tells me is that we have to move beyond only trying to prevent suicide once we already know somebody is at risk,” Anestis said. “If we keep doing that, we will keep missing a large portion of those at greatest risk. We need to find ways to encourage secure firearm storage — locked and unloaded and away from home during times of risk — throughout the entire firearm-owning community and particularly within the military.”
The study was funded by the Military Suicide Research Consortium. The findings were published online Jan. 9 in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on reducing military and veteran suicide.
SOURCE: Rutgers University, news release, Jan. 9, 2023