Guns, Suicide, and Teens

Rate of Firearm Suicide Among Teens Highest in 20 Years

Over the past five years, we’ve published more than two dozen articles on the disturbing phenomenon of suicide among teens. The articles explore a wide range of suicide-related topics, including the suicide contagion effect in teens, suicide among teens with borderline personality disorder, suicide among transgender teens, suicide among teen boys, the relationship between suicide and bullying, and the relationship between suicide, concussion, and body image – among others.

We encourage you to read all those articles. However, if you have to choose two to focus your attention on and increase your knowledge of suicide among teens, we recommend these three:

A Parent’s Guide to Self-Harm and Suicide Risk in Teens

Effective Outpatient Treatment in Preventing Adolescent Suicide and Self-Harm

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) the Gold Standard for Treating Adolescent Self-Harm and Suicidal Ideation

The first is an overview of self-harm and suicide among teens. The second is a guide to the most effective, evidence-based treatments for teens who engage in self-harm, suicidal ideation, or suicidal behavior. The third is an in-depth examination of DBT, an approach to treatment that’s proven effective for teens with mental health disorders characterized by high levels of emotional reactivity and impaired impulse control.

We’ve never published an article on the relationship between teen suicide and guns, though – until now. Recent data shows in increase in firearm related suicide among teens, a trend which is alarming, but also preventable. Before we talk about guns and teen suicide, though, we should outline the scope of the problem.

Suicide in the U.S.: Facts and Figures

We publish the majority of these articles in response to the increase in teen suicide over the past twenty years, because our focus is on the mental health and wellbeing of teenagers. However, teens aren’t the only demographic to experience an increase in suicide.

Here’s the most recent data on suicide overall, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2020.

  • 46,000 people in the U.S. died by suicide
    • One completed suicide attempt every 11 minutes
  • 12.2 million adults seriously considered suicide
  • 3.2 million adults made a plan to commit suicide
  • 1.2 million adults attempted suicide

Now let’s look at the data on teen suicide. We retrieved the next two sets of data from CDC publication Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance: 2019. We’ll start with big picture statistics.

Teen Suicide Facts: Trends and Important Points

  • Suicide surpassed homicide as the second leading cause of death for people age 10-24 in the year 2014
  • Every day in the U.S., 3,703 adolescents in grades 9-12 attempt suicide
  • Eight out of every ten teens who commit suicide give clear warning signs
  • A third of teens who die by suicide attempted suicide at least once before
  • Risk of a fatal suicide increases 100 times in the year following a suicide attempt
  • Teens who attempt suicide often have a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder, such as depression
  • Between 2009 and 2019, the percentage of high school students seriously considering suicide increased by 36%
  • In 2017, more teens died by suicide than by car accidents
  • Between 2007 and 2018, the rate of suicide increased 57% for people ages 10-24

Now let’s look at a specific set of statistics on suicide among teens.

Teen Suicide: High School Students and Young Adults in 2019-2020

  • 8.9% of high school students reported at least one suicide attempt in 2019
    • 11.0% of females
    • 6.6% of males
  • 18.8% reported seriously considering suicide in 2019
    • 24.1% of females
    • 13.3% of males
  • 6,188 people age 10-24 committed suicide in 2019
  • 6,643 people age 10-24 committed suicide in 2020

Taken as a whole, this data indicates that suicide is a serious problem among teenagers in the U.S. That brings us to the topic at hand: the relationship of guns and teen suicide. What many people don’t know is that alongside the overall increase in suicide among teens, there has also been an increase in firearm-related – a.k.a. gun-related – suicide among teens, and the numbers increase every year.

Firearm Suicide and Teens: The Impact

We want to make something perfectly clear before we begin. This is not a political issue for us, although we realize that politically speaking, this is a third-rail topic. Nor is this a cultural issue for us, although we realize that culturally speaking, this topic can be divisive, rancorous, and filled with powerful emotion. Our goal is to present the facts on teens, firearms, and guns, as reported in a publication called “The Rise of Firearm Suicide Among Young Americans” released by the non-profit advocacy group Everytown For Gun Safety in June, 2022.

Our perspective is that this is a teen mental health and safety issue, at its core. Interviewed in an article published by ABC news about red-flag laws passed recently in 19 states, Sarah Burd-Sharps, research director for Everytown for Gun Safety, makes the following important observations:

[Note: Red-flag laws allow local law enforcement and/or family members to petition for restricted access to firearms for people in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.]

“The research shows pretty clearly that people who struggle with mental illness are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crimes. With that said, certainly knowing the warning signs and learning to talk about mental health — particularly, we’re talking about young people — so the way we talk about mental health with young people in our lives is a huge part of the solution. One of the most effective things we can do to help young people in crisis is to keep [guns] out of their hands.”

That quote begs at least two questions:

Are guns more accessible to young people now than before?

If so, what does this have to do with teen suicide?

In order to answer those questions, we need to take an in-depth look at the causes and manner of teen suicide in the U.S., then compare those facts with what we know about the complex relationship between firearms, suicide, and teens.

Suicide and Teens: Factors that Increase Risk

We’ve outlined suicide risk factors in several previously published articles – see the links above – but we think the report from Everytown for Gun Safety does an excellent job summarizing factors that increase likelihood of suicide in teens.

Here’s how they describe the factors that contribute to teen suicide:

Risk Increases When These Three Things Combine to Create a Sense of Hopelessness and Despair

1, Life stress, including:

    • The presence of a clinical mental health diagnosis, such as:
      • Depression
      • Borderline Personality Disorder
      • NSSI (non-suicidal self-injury, a.k.a. self-harm)
  • Chronic stress, such as:
      • Bullying
      • Disrupted home life

2. Presence of known risk factors, including:

    • Previous suicide attempt or attempts
    • Family history of suicide
    • Childhood trauma, including:
      • Physical abuse
      • Emotional abuse
      • Neglect
      • Witnessing violence

3. Immediate access to lethal means, including:

    • Firearms
    • Poison
    • Sharp objects

Next, we’ll now look at the most recent statistics on gun ownership.

Recent Trends: Gun Ownership in the U.S.

  • Gun purchases, 2017-2020:
    • 2017: 25.2 million
    • 2018: 26.1 million
    • 2019: 28.4 million
    • 2020: 39.6 million
    • 2021: 38.8 million
  • 30 million American children now live in homes with firearms

Now we’ll look at the relationship between firearms and suicide among teens. Before that, though, we have two numbers to share that should focus your attention:

  1. 90% suicide attempts involving firearms result in death:
  2. 4% of suicide attempts that don’t involve firearms result in death

The difference is staggering. To put it plainly, without percentages, that’s four out of a hundred compared to ninety out of a hundred.

Teens, Guns, and Suicide: Facts for Parents

  • 3100 young people die by firearm suicide every year
  • Close to 75% of firearm suicides by people under age 18 happen near a family home
  • 80% of firearm suicides by people under age 18 involve a firearm belonging to a family member
  • Between 2012 and 2022:
    • The firearm suicide rate increased by 53% among people under age 18
  • Between 2019 and 2020:
    • The firearm suicide rate increased by 15% among young people age 10-24
  • Between 2019-2021:
    • The firearm suicide rate increased 31% among people age 10-24
  • Between 2011-2020:
    • The firearm suicide rate increased 146% among people age 10-24

Finally, here’s a statistic that ties gun ownership and suicide among youth age 10-19:

For each 10 percent increase in household gun ownership in a state, the youth suicide rate increased by more than 25 percent.

That clarifies the situation in a way that only numbers can. As gun ownership rates rise, so rise suicide rates among young people. This data is correlative, of course. However, common sense tells us the correlation is something we should be very concerned about.

Gun Ownership and Teen Suicide: Grim Projections

Rates of gun ownership are increasing and rates of teen suicide by firearm are increasing. As the data shows, for each ten percent increase in gun ownership in any state, there’s a corresponding 25% increase in teen firearm suicide.

Let’s take a look at more gun ownership data:

Top Five States: Gun Ownership

Four out of five of those states are in the top five states in the U.S. for gun ownership (percent of people who own one or more guns):

  1. Montana: 66.3%
  2. Wyoming: 66.2%
  3. Alaska: 64.5%
  4. Idaho: 60.1%
  5. West Virginia: 58.5%

Now let’s look at the states with the highest rates of firearm suicide among young people.

Top Five States: Firearm Suicide and Youth

  1. Alaska
  2. Wyoming
  3. Montana
  4. Idaho
  5. New Mexico

Note that four of the top five states for firearm suicide among youth are among the top five states for gun ownership. Finally, we offer the states where firearm suicide among young people have increased the most over the past ten years.

Top Five States: Increase in Firearm Suicide Among Youth

States with the fastest-growing firearm suicide rates among young people over the past decade:

  1. Indiana:
    • Increased by 139%
  2. Colorado
    • Increased by 121%
  3. Missouri:
    • Increased by 114%
  4. Georgia:
    • Increased by 90%
  5. New Mexico:
    • Increased by 90%
Boys and young men age 10-24 account for 88% of firearm suicides nationwide.

That’s all the statistic we have – for now. They’re enough to answer the two questions we pose above:

Are guns more accessible to young people now than before?

If so, what does this have to do with teen suicide?

The answer to the first question, based on the data above, is yes.

The answer to the second question, based on the data above, is this:

The presence of a gun in a home increases risk that an individual between age 10-24 living in the home will commit suicide by firearm.

That’s a problem.

What can we do about it?

How to Prevent Suicide by Firearm Among Teens

The best way to reduce the risk of any given thing happening is to remove things that increase risk of that thing happening.

That’s obvious – but we need to say it. Consider this excerpt of a report from Harvard School of Public Health called “Means Reduction Saves Lives”:

“Prior to the 1950s, domestic gas in the United Kingdom was derived from coal and contained carbon monoxide. Poisoning by gas inhalation was the leading means of suicide in the UK. In 1958, natural gas, virtually free of carbon monoxide, was introduced into the UK. By 1971, 69% of gas used was natural gas. Over time…suicides by carbon monoxide decreased dramatically.”

The simplest version of our point here is that the easier something is to do, the more likely a person is to do it. When authorities in the U.K. made it difficult to commit suicide using a gas over, rates of suicide by carbon monoxide decreased, as did rates of suicide overall.

This approach aligns with the five-point plan for reducing teen firearm suicide created by Everytown for Gun Safety. We’ll share that plan now, and you can decide whether this approach makes sense. All of the steps are logical and practical, and none of them are controversial.

Everytown for Gun Safety: Action Steps

1. Limit easy and immediate access to firearms.

This is possible by:

  • Storing guns securely at home.
  • Storing guns securely at a location other than the home
  • Passing and enforcing red flag laws
  • Establishing waiting periods for gun purchase
  • Requiring permits for gun ownership
  • Requiring background checks for gun permits

2. Invest in research and prevention programs.

Research should focus on:

  • Analyzing data by subgroups to develop interventions culturally informed, evidence-based interventions
  • Developing interventions focused on demographic subgroups
  • Targeting those in most need
  • Reduce disparity between subgroups
  • Improving program effectiveness

3. Know the teen suicide risk factors and warning signs.

Note: we’ve published these risk factors and warning signs, in various forms, in many of our articles on teen suicide. For the purpose of this list, we’ll include this streamlined set provided by America Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The following behaviors are risk factors and warning signs for teen suicide:

    • Threatening or talking about suicide
    • Looking for ways to attempt suicide such as trying to acquire a firearm or pills
    • Increased use of drugs and/or alcohol
    • Feelings of hopelessness
    • History of depression
    • Increased agitation or irritability
    • Difficulty with sleep
    • Withdrawal from friends, family, and previously loved activities
    • Saying goodbye to loved ones
    • Giving away their possessions.

4. Learn how to talk about mental health.

If you’re the parent of a teen, you can:

    • Show your teen your unconditional love and support
    • Make sure you know you’re there for them and that you care
    • Encourage them to talk to you – about anything
    • Listen actively.
    • Be interested and ask questions about things they love
    • Ask your teen about changes in their life
    • Be direct and don’t shy away from difficult conversations
    • Follow their lead
    • Offer to find your teen professional help

5. Reach out for professional help.

Parents and teens can call:

    • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL)
    • 95% of callers reported that speaking with a NSPL counselor helped stop their suicide plan
    • Beginning July 16th, 2022, anyone can call 988 – the New National 911 for mental health issues

The basic idea is that in order to save life, we reduce risk. At a policy level, we can allocate resources to research that will help reduce teen firearm suicide. At the family level, we can keep guns out of the hands of our teens by storing them safely, if we own guns. Also, at the family level, we can help our teens manage the difficult emotions that may lead to suicide by talking about mental health issues in an open, honest, and direct manner. If we’re unable to offer our teens the direct support they need, we can find them professional help. And if friends or family need help, we can direct them to resources they can use immediately, like the National Suicide Prevention Line.

Final note: if you or your teen are in imminent danger, call 911 or go to the emergency room immediately. Act immediately. Do not dismiss talk of suicide.

Finding Help: Resources

If you’re seeking treatment for your teen, please navigate to our page How to Find the Best Treatment Programs for Teens and download our helpful handbook, A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health Treatment for Teens.

In addition, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) is an excellent resource for locating licensed and qualified psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors in your area. Both the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness also provide and high-quality online resources, ready and waiting for you right now.