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Suicide Prevention Awareness Month: What new research says about mental health assessments

A study from the Ohio State University shows why assessments and questions need to be tailored more toward the individual.

CLEVELAND — Suicide is the 12th-leading cause of death nationally. However, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), it is the second-leading cause of death among youth aged 10-14 and the third-leading cause of among those aged 15-24.

Research out of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and College of Medicine found that sometimes, the mental health assessment questions fall short of identifying those who may be at risk, specifically relating to gun owners. The study, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, found that gun owners with a recent suicide attempt are less likely than non-gun owners to report experiencing suicidal ideation, even though firearms are the most common method of suicide.

Researchers concluded that gun owners and non-gun owners experience thoughts about suicide in different ways, which may explain why the standard questions to identify those at risk of suicide often fall short.

"Not everyone experiences suicidal ideation in the same way," Craig Bryan, a clinical psychologist and director of the Division of Recovery and Resilience at Ohio State's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, explained, "so maybe our traditional ways of asking about suicidal thoughts are incomplete.

"Just a simple shift in questioning, adding one more different perspective or a different angle to ask about suicidal thoughts could potentially help us to identify people who are in a vulnerable state."

Bryan, author of the book "Rethinking Suicide: Why Prevention Fails, and How We Can Do Better," says this includes amending assessments to go beyond asking someone if they've thought about suicide by asking if they've considered a method of suicide, which gun owners are more likely to have an answer to. He adds that combining more comprehensive questions with simple barriers to immediate gun access — such as locking firearms in a safe or asking someone they trust to store them — can save lives.

Donna and Jeff Heck of Lexington in Richland County started supporting Bryan's research after losing their daughter Dani to suicide in 2019. At the time, Dani was planning a new business to help others suffering with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. Now, her parents are carrying out her dreams through the 33 Forever Inc., a nonprofit created in Dani's honor.

Credit: OSU Wexner Medical Center
Jeff and Donna Heck lost their daughter Dani to suicide in 2019. Their non-profit organization, 33 Forever, supports research at The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center that explores how asking the right questions can better identify those at risk for suicide – especially those with access to guns, who are less likely to report suicidal ideation.

"She had a dark moment that she couldn't get through, unfortunately, and that's why we lost her, but she believed that you could," Jeff Heck said. "It's about trying to provide people with resources to help and hope, and understanding that you can see tomorrow. You've just got to get through the moment, and if you can get through the moment, you can be here tomorrow and you can live a good life and you can overcome."

For anyone at risk of suicide, help is available 24/7 by calling (800) 273-TALK or texting 741741, or by calling the National Mental Health Helpline at 988.

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