Firearms are the third leading cause of death among people under the age of 18 in the U.S., beating any infectious disease or congenital conditions. That’s perhaps not surprising; after all, it’s hard to locate another developed country that allows easier access to guns than the U.S. Each year nearly 1,300 American children die from gunshot wounds, and another 5,790 are treated for them.
Now, a new study in the journal Pediatrics has provided both encouraging and frightening news about this national problem. Researchers from the CDC looked at national data from 2002 to 2014 and found that accidental firearm deaths and gun-related homicides among minors declined during that period. They also found that firearm suicides in under-18-year-olds declined from 2002 to 2007. The (very) bad news: That trend reversed after 2007, with firearm suicides among children and teens rising steadily through 2014.
Other research from the CDC has found that rates of adolescent suicide from all causes (not just firearms) rose substantiallyin the U.S. between the years 1999 and 2014, with the largest increase among girls ages 10 to 14, whose incidence of suicide rose 200 percent in that 15-year period.
It’s not yet clear what exactly accounts for the rising rate of firearm and other types of suicides in minors. Easy access to weapons and the effects of social media on mental health are two factors that researchers are exploring.
Whatever the causes, parents should be aware that impulsive suicide is common in this age group, so decreasing the availability for lethal means can help. Parents who keep any firearms in the home should follow evidence-based practices for storing them—including locking up all firearms and ammunition and storing them in separate places—that are known to save lives. Parents should also be on the lookout for emotional or behavioral changes in their child that could point to an increased risk for suicide. If such changes occur, the child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional should be contacted right away.