A new survey of veterans who receive mental health care through the Veterans Health Administration finds that 93 percent would approve of the VA offering at least one option to address firearm access.
Reduced access might involve having health care providers ask about veterans’ access to firearms, providing gun locks, or teaching veterans’ family and friends about suicide warning signs and firearm safety.
In general, veterans are 22 percent more likely to die from suicide than members of the general U.S. population of the same age and gender. Approximately 20 American veterans die by suicide each day — and most of them use a firearm.
The survey focused on the attitudes and views of the veterans most at risk of suicide: those already in treatment for mental health conditions, including drug and alcohol problems.
The findings show that more than 68 percent of those surveyed would be in favor of the VA offering gun locks to veterans who have firearms at home. A total of 82 percent thought that there were situations where VA clinicians needed to ask veterans about their firearm access, and only seven percent opposed all such screening.
Three-quarters of surveyed veterans also favored at least one more-intensive effort by the VA to work with patients to voluntarily reduce their firearm access, such as efforts to store or dispose of veterans’ guns, or to help families secure veterans’ guns or gun lock keys.
The survey of 660 veterans polled at five VA centers around the country was led by Marcia Valenstein, M.D., M.S., of the University of Michigan and the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System.
“Veterans in mental health care are in favor of voluntary programs to reduce firearm access during high-risk periods. This suggests the VA and other health systems should consider working with veterans to develop and implement these programs,” says Valenstein, a professor emerita in the University of Michigan (U-M) Department of Psychiatry and member of the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation and the VA Center for Clinical Management Research.
What’s more, she adds, “Half of veterans in mental health care indicated if they were suicidal, they would participate in interventions that would substantially limit their own access to their firearms.”
The higher rate of gun ownership among veterans, compared with non-veteran Americans, is linked to the higher rate of suicide, say the authors. More than 45 percent of the veterans surveyed said they had a firearm in their own home, and they were somewhat less likely than non-firearm owners to support the measures discussed in the survey.
Even so, 82 percent said they would be willing to take part in some sort of program that addressed their access to firearms, and two out of three of them said they might or would be open to the VA offering storage and disposal options that might limit their access to those guns during times when they might be at greater suicide risk.
“Voluntarily reducing access to these firearms during high-risk periods for suicide, such as periods of increased mental health symptoms, after serious personal setbacks, or particularly at times when suicidal thoughts or plans emerge, may reduce veteran deaths,” says Valenstein.
Valenstein worked with colleagues from U-M, Northeastern University and West Virginia University on the study, including Matthew Miller, M.D., M.P.H., Sc.D. of Northeastern’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences, who has studied firearm-related attitudes and practices among veterans and other groups.
The survey findings are published in the journal General Hospital Psychiatry.