They said their findings show it's extremely important to screen children for suicide risk, and to educate parents about how to keep guns out of their hands if they are. And early treatment is also vital.
The researchers, who presented their findings at the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting in Washington, D.C., say they don't want their results to get mixed up in the current debate over firearms regulation. They just want to keep kids safe.
"A lot of kids, surprisingly, don't have a history of mental illness but they attempt suicide," says Dr. Stephen Teach, an emergency room doctor at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Suicide is the No. 3 cause of death for children and youths aged 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 4,600 kids and young adults kill themselves each year, and 45 percent of them use guns. Another 40 percent suffocate or strangle themselves and 8 percent poison themselves.
"Guns are the most lethal method that is commonly used in suicide attempts," says Dr. Matt Miller, an injury control expert at the Harvard School of Public Health. People who try to commit suicide using pills or by cutting themselves complete the suicide just 3 percent of the time, he said.
Teach and colleagues made their discovery while trying to come up with an easy, short questionnaire for emergency room doctors to use while seeing children for a range of troubles. Their study included 524 patients ages 10 to 21 being seen at three pediatric emergency rooms.
"When we were asking kids these questions, we also asked kids questions about firearms and bullets. To our surprise, one-fifth reported firearms in the home," Teach said in an interview. "That's a pretty volatile mix. Nearly half of all completed suicides involve firearms, which is pretty scary."
Image: Depressed child, via Shutterstock