In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, 99 New Mexican youths between 10 and 24 took their own lives. It was the highest number in one year since the late 1990s.
Roughly half were by firearm, making the state’s youth-suicide-by-firearm rate among the five highest in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Prevention experts and Department of Health officials agree: firearms play a significant role in suicides among those of all ages across New Mexico. And it should come as little surprise: the state has between the seventh highest gun ownership rate in the country.
Half of all New Mexican households report gun ownership, compared to about 29 percent nationally.
The association between youth suicide and firearms is a complex one.
The state’s most recent Youth Risk and Resilience Survey, administered in 2017 to 17,000 high school students by the Department of Health, found that one in 10 students — roughly 13,000 teenagers — had both contemplated suicide and also were aware of the presence of a gun in the house.
The same survey found that over a third of respondents had persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, while one in 10 reported attempting suicide in the previous year. Among Bernalillo County students (the majority of whom attend Albuquerque Public Schools), 18.5 percent said they had seriously considered suicide.
At the same time, there is no lethal means reduction program in New Mexico, making it the lone outlier among the 10 states with the highest gun ownership and suicide rates, according to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Alabama and Utah, which come close behind in suicide rates, have statewide programs that train providers on lethal means counseling, purchase and distribute gun locks, and conduct awareness campaigns.
Natalie Skogerboe of Aspen Solutions, a behavioral health consulting agency based in Santa Fe, leads ongoing research efforts on mental health and suicide prevention in several counties, working with schools from Socorro to Taos to create crisis response teams and mental health action plans.
“We’re finding that there’s not nearly enough providers who are trained to work with adolescents in the state, and community members are in denial that this is an issue,” said Skogerboe, a mental health program analyst. “And they really don’t want to talk about what place guns have in all of this.”
At a recent community presentation, Aspen presented its finding that 14.8 percent of middle school students in Socorro had reported attempting suicide in 2018. “The community members said it wasn’t true,” said Skogerboe. “They only believed the data when our team member, who’s an emergency room nurse, said she’s in the ER and she sees weekly suicide attempts by young people.”
An analysis by Searchlight New Mexico and The Trace of coroner reports found that among youth suicides by firearm over the last decade, the majority of guns were owned by family or household members, mirroring National Violent Injury Statistic System figures.
“If we locked up all firearms appropriately in our state, we would immediately cut our suicide rate in half,” said Victoria Waugh-Reed, former crisis resource counselor with Albuquerque Public Schools and now Prevention Coordinator for the Department of Health.
A study of youth access by researchers at Harvard used data from a 22-year period and determined that a 10 percent drop in the percentage of gun-owning homes was linked with an 8 percent drop in youth suicide rates.
An inverse relationship exists, however, in rural Torrance County, east of Albuquerque, where nearly everyone has a gun in the home, according to Sharalynn Lucero, a behavioral health program coordinator for the county.
Lucero noted that, just as elsewhere across New Mexico, Torrance County has seen an increase in youth suicides and attempts over the last five years. The problem here, she said, is the availability of behavioral health practitioners. There are only two providers, she said, and both “are packed, so there’s really nowhere to refer kids struggling with mental illness.”
Nevertheless, Lucero doesn’t see a problem with firearms when it comes to youth suicides. “There are more hunter safety courses for kids from a very young age. And guns are valued among the elderly in the community,” she said, adding that there has been a growing recognition among residents about the importance of using gun safes and locks. An analysis of medical investigator reports confirm that Torrance County lost only one youth to suicide by firearm since 2010.
A similar dynamic exists in Chaves County, where “everybody and everybody’s kid has a gun,” said Sheriff Mike Herrington. “But kids who have been raised around guns and see their destructive power … some end up with mental illness, but they don’t use the guns on themselves.”
Restricting access lowers risks
Nearly two thirds of all gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides. Though guns contribute to only a small portion of attempts, they are lethal in more than 85 percent of them, and make up about half of all suicides annually. In comparison, drug or poison overdose account for a greater portion of attempts but are fatal in less than 5 percent of cases.
A team of researchers at Boston University’s School of Public Health recently examined the relationship between youth suicide and gun ownership on a state-by-state basis, in a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Household gun ownership was the single biggest predictor of youth suicide rate, according to Dr. Michael Siegel, a public health specialist involved in the study.
Meanwhile, the new administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has begun to tackle the problem — authorizing a full-time suicide prevention coordinator to create a holistic prevention program.
When asked if firearm means prevention was a focus, Jacalyn Dougherty, the new coordinator, said it would be included. “We’re following CDC policies and strategies, focusing on evidence-based practices, gatekeeper practices, means access, promoting resilience.”
Researchers have found that programs that aim to prevent firearm means access have been effective. “These states with high suicide by firearm rates should have efforts focusing explicitly on guns,” said Dr. Michael Anestis, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi and author of Guns and Suicide: An American Epidemic. “We don’t have the data to say which states’ suicide-prevention plan works and which doesn’t, but we have research showing that efforts focused specifically on firearms are effective in reducing deaths.”
New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonpartisan statewide organization, has been working to pass an access prevention bill that could help increase secure storage of firearms, a measure proven to lower overall adolescent suicide rates. If passed, it would require guns to be stored unloaded and under lock.
“Suicide rates among our kids are consistently going up, and guns are a constant,” says Miranda Viscoli, the group’s co-president. “The two can’t be unlinked.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK) or go to speakingofsuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.