Penn Researcher Finds No Link Between Gun Ownership and Mental Health Problems, Despite Higher Suicide Rates

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Media Contact:Jill DiSanto-Haines | | 215-898-4820May 28, 2008

PHILADELPHIA — In a new study, a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice has found no link between firearms possession and mental-health conditions that may lead to suicide.

“Mental Health and Firearms in Community-Based Surveys: Implications for Suicide Prevention” is to be published in the June issue of Evaluation Review.

Previous studies have shown that persons with mental disorders and people who own handguns have higher rates of suicide and that each year more people kill themselves with a gun rather than using a gun to kill someone else.

Susan Sorenson, a professor in Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice and in the Department of Criminology of Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, examined the association between gun ownership and mental health. She analyzed data from the General Social Survey, comparing gun owners, those who do not own a gun and people who do not own a gun but live in a household that has a gun in it.

These three groups did not differ in their general emotional and mental health, sadness and depression, functional mental health or mental health help-seeking.

Despite substantially higher suicide rates among those with a mental disorder and those who own handguns -- and an elevated suicide risk that extends to other members residing in the gun-owning household, in this cross-sectional study -- Sorenson found no association between mental health and gun ownership. She concluded the high risk of suicide among gun owners or those who live in a household with a gun does not appear to be related to poor mental health.

Rather, their suicide risk may be greater simply because a gun, a highly lethal means of attempting suicide, is in the home or because of differences that were not measured in the research.

In addition, Sorenson said that impulsivity, an individual characteristic associated with suicide, particularly in young people, may be a useful topic for further research into why handgun owners and those who live with them are more likely to commit suicide.