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Stanford University School of Medicine

A Stanford resident explains why he asks every mental health patient about guns

glass-1497231_1920As a resident in psychiatry, Nathaniel P. Morris, MD, frequently encounters suicidal patients. In a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, Morris explains why he discusses guns with every patient, and why he is particularly frightened when he learns his patient has access to a gun. He quotes a 2015 Newsweek article by Mike Mariani: "The problem is that firearms are frighteningly lethal... This is surely gun violence at its most virulent — Berettas and Glock 17s crystallizing passing impulses into something horrifically permanent."

True, some patients may post a harm to others, Morris acknowledges. But, he adds:

...the specter of suicide, rather than homicide, haunts me most often in my daily work. Each year in the United States, there are nearly twice as many suicides by guns than homicides by guns, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet public perceptions of gun violence rarely associate with a person alone at home, desperate, in need of medical help.

So if my colleagues and I evaluate a patient who owns a gun and wants to self-harm, or more rarely harm others, what do we do?

Morris and his colleagues turn to a variety of tools, all intended to reduce the patient's access to anything that could pose a danger, including guns. They could ask family members or friends to take the gun for a while. They can request a welfare check from a law enforcement agency. And, if necessary, psychiatrists can hold a patient in the hospital for his or her own safety for up to 72 hours.

Due to the heated political debate surrounding guns, however, some states, including Florida have made moves to block physicians from discussing guns with their patients. And, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's ability to fund research on firearms has been severely restricted.

For Morris, that's unacceptable: " keep patients and communities healthy, clinicians need to be able to ask about firearms. In medicine, rarely can a single question make such a difference."

Previously: Study: ER statistics could be used to help reduce gun violence and Pew Research Center: Gun homicide rate has dropped by half since 1993
Photo by kira_fotografie

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