Parents of mentally ill teens aren't more likely to store guns safely

(Reuters Health) - Parents of adolescents with depression or bipolar disorder are no more likely than households without a mentally ill teen to follow safe firearm storage practices, a recent U.S. study suggests.

Researchers examined survey data on gun storage from 279 parents or guardians who had at least one gun in their household and at least one adolescent 11 to 17 years old.

Overall, only 69% of respondents said they kept all firearms locked up and unloaded, which is recommended by pediatricians to keep guns out of kids’ reach and reduce the likelihood weapons will be used in accidental shootings or suicide attempts.

While safe storage was slightly more likely in households with a teen suffering from a mental health or substance use issue, the difference wasn’t statistically significant.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents prevent their children from accessing household firearms either by removing them or locking them,” said lead study author Dr. Joseph Simonetti of the VA Denver Healthcare System and the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Denver.

“This is even more critical when an adolescent is at increased risk for suicide - in this case parents and guardians should ensure that adolescents don’t have access to a firearm to prevent them from making an irreversible decision during an emotional crisis,” Simonetti said by email. “It’s important to know that 90% of suicide attempts by firearm result in death.”

The phone survey involved members of a large health network covering the states of Washington and Idaho. Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements like, “I know how to teach my children to stay away from guns effectively.”

Overall, 141 households in the analysis, or roughly half, had a teen with medical records indicating treatment or diagnosis of depression or bipolar disorder in the previous two years, researchers report in the Journal of Adolescent Health, online August 16.

One in four teens lived in a household with a firearm, and 8% lived in a home with a loaded firearm.

About one in four parents and guardians said they had just one gun in their household, while more than half reported keeping at least three firearms.

Keeping at least one gun loaded in the home was slightly less likely in households with a mentally ill teen, but again, the difference could have been due to chance.

It’s possible the study was too small, and didn’t include enough mentally ill teens, to see a meaningful difference in how parents stored guns when a child had psychiatric problems, the authors note.

The study also didn’t find a meaningful difference in parents’ beliefs about gun storage based on whether the child had a mental illness.

Nor did having a mentally ill child influence how often parents felt they knew how to teach kids about gun safety, or whether they knew guns needed to be locked, unloaded and stored separately from bullets to keep kids safe.

Even so, the findings add to a large body of evidence suggesting that many Americans don’t store their firearms locked and unloaded, even when teens live in the household, said David Schwebel, director of the Youth Safety Lab at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The presence of firearms, especially unlocked and loaded guns that are ready to use, can increase the odds of suicide attempts and successes, Schwebel, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

“Parents should always store their firearms safely - in fact everyone should store their firearms safely - whether there are children or teens in the home or only adults living there,” Schwebel added. “Teens with mental health disorders may present particularly high risk of suicidal injury from firearms, but all firearms should be stored safely in every home.”


J Adolesc Health 2017.