Montana is persistently in the top three states in the U.S. in terms of youth dying by suicide and overwhelmingly, the means youth use to kill themselves is firearms. In Montana, 63% of youth suicides are by firearms (compared to 39% nationally). Montana girls ages 10-18 kill themselves using firearms at six times the rate of girls in the rest of the country. Preventing Montana’s youth from dying by suicide should and must be a priority, yet in America nothing sets off an ideological divide like the mention of guns. However, it is meaningless to talk about suicide without discussing the means.
Using firearms is significant because people are far more likely to die from a suicide attempt; 83% of suicide attempts using firearms result in death, so the means matter. People who survive suicide are unlikely to attempt it again. Among those who have attempted suicide, approximately 7% eventually die by suicide, yet 70% have no further attempts.
Growing up with firearms does not make an individual more prone to suicide. But if firearms are present in a household, reducing access to them during a suicidal crisis is important. Almost half of all people who survived a suicide attempt reported that there was less than 10 minutes of deliberation between the emergence of suicidal thoughts and the actual attempt.
The policies shown to reduce youth suicide are child-access prevention laws (which include safe storage laws) and minimum age requirements for purchasing a firearm. Child-access prevention laws lower both the total number of suicides and the number of suicides with firearms. However, federal agencies are constrained in what data they are permitted to collect making additional research challenging. For instance, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is restricted by Congress from gathering data on gun violence — a restriction that should be lifted.
With the public’s attitudes on gun policy being so widely divergent, non-legislative approaches may be our best option until Americans can overcome the polarization that exists around gun laws. These approaches include counselling at-risk youth and their families, educational campaigns and partnering with key players, such as people who are in contact with at-risk youth and gun owner groups. There is agreement between gun owners and non-gun owners when it comes to gun safety, especially when children are present in the household.
Budget cuts made in 2018 to Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services severely undermined suicide prevention efforts, with 100 mental health professionals being laid off across the state and 10 rural health care programs closing. Mental health services for youth in crisis were affected by these cuts. Additionally, during the Montana 2019 session, two pieces of legislation aimed at impacting Montana’s high suicide rates were introduced but tabled in committee. Both bills included funding for youth suicide prevention program.
Youth suicide and access to firearms is a public health crisis. Keeping guns out of the hands of youth who are having suicidal thoughts is common sense, delaying their actions and giving them time to reassess their choices.
Daphne Herling is the senior research analyst for Montana KIDS COUNT at the Bureau of Business and Economic Research.