Economic Uncertainty, Social Isolation And More Guns Cause Public Health Concerns

May 15, 2020

Coverage of novel coronavirus is supported by the Mick Hitchcock, Ph.D., Project for Visualizing Science, a science reporting project from the Reynolds School of Journalism.

Nevada has one of the highest rates of gun-related suicides in the nation. That’s according to the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence. KUNR’s Anh Gray spoke to Dakota Jablon, the suicide prevention specialist for the group. She says during the pandemic, there’s been an increase in gun sales, and she’s concerned that the combination of economic uncertainty and social isolation could exacerbate mental health issues for some.

Gray: So what are you seeing? Has there been a recent increase in gun sales?

Jablon: Based on national data on the number of federal background checks that have been done, [and] based on previous years of that data, we are seeing an increase in the number of gun background checks being done. Which then can be used to determine that there are indeed more guns being sold. However, we don't know the exact number.

Gray: What is the link between owning firearms and suicides?

Jablon: So we know that just being a gun owner doesn't make you suicidal. Research consistently shows that just having that access to a firearm increases the risk of suicide. And especially when a firearm is stored, loaded and unlocked, they actually have found that access to a gun in the home increases the odds of suicide more than threefold. If someone attempts suicide using a firearm, they're going to die nine out of 10 times.

Gray: How urgent is this issue in Nevada?

Jablon: So in Nevada, suicides make up 67% of all gun deaths in the state, and more than half of all the suicides in Nevada are by firearms. And so we know that in places that have higher rates of gun ownership, those states see higher rates of suicide overall, and suicides by firearm. And so Nevada actually in 2018 had the seventh-highest firearms suicide rate in the country. And so one of those reasons is because it is a very high gun-owning state. You see that in other Western states like Montana and Wyoming, which are other high gun-owning states, and also have much higher rates of suicide overall and firearm suicide rates compared to other states that are neighboring, such as California, that have lower rates of gun ownership as a whole and then ultimately have lower suicide rates.

Gray: What are the increased risks right now during the pandemic?

Jablon: We know that there [are] multiple reasons a person becomes suicidal or attempts suicide, and there's not usually just one risk factor. But what we're seeing right now with COVID-19 is that there are multiple risk factors because of the virus. People are more isolated than ever before. They are increasingly lonely. Both isolation and loneliness increase a person's risk for suicide under normal conditions. And so now when you're actually experiencing that, some people are not even leaving their homes. That's going to increase that risk even more. One of the biggest risk factors is economic uncertainty and job loss. So Nevada is really seeing a lot of people unemployed right now, which is going to increase economic uncertainty, and also could increase a person's risk for suicide.

Gray: What can be done to minimize gun-related suicides?

Jablon: So I think there's a lot of different things that people really need to be doing. One of the easiest things to do is checking in on our loved ones and making sure that we are talking to them as much as we can, making sure that while we're physically distant, we don't have to be socially distant.

We also want to make sure that we're asking about their firearm access, especially if we know that they are a firearm owner. Make sure that they're practicing safer storage right now. I think it's extremely important for health care professionals to be trained on something called lethal means safety counseling. And so how that works is the health care provider would first see if a person who is at risk of suicide does indeed have access to lethal means, and then they work with that person and their family or friends to reduce access to the firearm or other lethal mean, until the risk of suicide decreases. Gun stores being partners in suicide prevention and making sure that they're sharing available information about suicide prevention.

And then at the population level or the policies, we know that just waiting periods for handguns, requiring someone to wait seven to 10 days before they actually bring home their firearm that they have purchased, that can prevent suicides. But I think the main thing is making sure that people are not afraid to talk about this topic. There's such a stigma around suicide prevention in general, but people being able to openly talk about it and show that there is hope and that these suicides can be prevented.

Help is available. Please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 if you or a loved one is experiencing distress or having thoughts about suicide.