A nationwide study out of the Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University finds that for people who die by suicide using a firearm, they may begin to express suicidal ideation about a month before taking their lives instead of actively seeking help and professional treatment.

Michael Anestis, Gun Violence Research Center executive director and an associate professor in the Rutgers School of Public Health, said to turn back this trend, not only should people's minds be opened to available mental health care, but safe gun storage should also be stressed.

That's not a matter of cutting down on further gun sales or access to purchasing even in as strict a state as New Jersey, according to Anestis, as he said most firearms that will be used in suicide attempts are already in a person's home.

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Proper health care and gun storage go hand in hand in this case, Anestis said.

"One of the things these findings can do is point toward the need to increase mental health care usage among firearm owners, so that when they're having a hard time, they feel comfortable getting the help they need to feel better," he said.

And when as high as 85% to 90% of suicide attempts using guns are unfortunately successful, as illustrated in the study published in JAMA Network Open, safe storage is crucial.

"All other suicide methods outside of firearms, combined, result in death less than 5% of the time, and 70% of the time someone survives a suicide attempt, they don't attempt again," Anestis said.

The study measured data from nearly 235,000 suicides from 2003 to 2018, and found that just over a quarter (26%) who died due to a firearm had a history of treatment, versus 40% who died by other means.

Anestis said the demographic difference between those who had died and those who had attempted and survived was stark.

"They're just less likely to have either sought out mental health care prior to their death, or to have survived a suicide attempt by any method before that," he said.

But those demographics appear to have evolved quickly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading Anestis to believe further study will be needed.

Specifically, he said, firearm purchases among women and minorities have spiked, and cited New Jersey State Police data marking a more than 300% jump in purchase requests beginning in mid- to late 2020.

"We've seen a shift recently in terms of who is buying firearms, how often they're buying firearms, and whether those folks who are buying them have the risk of suicidal thoughts," Anestis said.

Patrick Lavery is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com

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