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Research Explores How Youth Access To Guns Is Linked To Mental Health Issues

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

New research claims to show that access to guns among young people is an indicator of mental health problems and violent behavior, and the research has raised questions about whether limiting gun access to young people can prevent suicides and homicides.

Joining us is Eric Sigel - no relation - who led that research. He's a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and adolescent medicine specialist at Children's Hospital Colorado. Welcome to the program.

ERIC SIGEL: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: First, in brief, what were your findings?

SIGEL: We found that 20 percent of youth reported having potential access to firearms. And then we asked a whole bunch of characteristics of those youth, including mental health characteristics, violence characteristics. And we found that for those youth who report increased potential access to firearms, that several factors predicted that, including several of the violence characteristics, being physically aggressive as well as mental health associations.

SIEGEL: So there was a positive relationship between young people having some kind of access to guns and those same young people having problems that could turn into violent behavior or perhaps even suicidal behavior.

SIGEL: Correct.

SIEGEL: You did this survey. Was it all in Denver?

SIGEL: Yes, it was in two urban communities in the metro Denver area.

SIEGEL: Is there a teenage gang scene in the neighborhoods that you did the study in?

SIGEL: There is a gang scene, certainly. In almost any urban area, there are some proportion of youth who are gang involved.

SIEGEL: I mean the question I have is when you study the relationship between access to guns or how many kids say they could get ahold of a gun if they needed one and you do it in high-crime neighborhoods of a big city, are you finding out something about that city and those neighborhoods or something more universal? Could you say as much about Swiss adolescents who are surrounded by guns in Switzerland, for example?

SIGEL: No. Certainly studies such as this is not generalizable to the greater U.S. population nor other countries. However, it does raise very interesting questions and risk as that association is there with those mental health issues with other issues.

SIEGEL: As a professor of pediatrics, do you think we've reached a point where a doctor should ask a teenager about access to a gun? Should it be part of a medical interview?

SIGEL: Yes, I feel very strongly that we should be screening both teenagers as well as parents for access to guns. And that access can be in the home where the kid lives, but other people have demonstrated that one way to truly decrease youth access to firearms is parents storing guns locked and unloaded and that even through health care, if we as a society can figure out how to pass out lockboxes and safe storage devices, then that's going to go a long ways to decreasing youth access.

SIEGEL: I guess I do have to ask you, is what you've done a work of medical epidemiology, or is it a study of sociology? That is, if we were to divert kids who start blowing things up when they're young, which I gather is a longtime indicator of problems to come, we don't ask doctors to study explosives. We don't regard that as a medical issue.

SIGEL: Right. Well, to me at least, it's pretty obvious that kids dying is a critical aspect of health. And so my job as a pediatrician and an adolescence specialist first and foremost is keep kids safe, you know, keep kids from dying.

We've made great progress in terms of deaths from motor vehicle accidents. However, death by firearm - those rates really haven't changed. And in fact, the last year of data available in 2015 showed a bit of an increase in the highest rate of death from firearms since 2008. So it really is a critical, critical problem.

SIEGEL: Dr. Eric Sigel of the University of Colorado School of Medicine, thank you very much for talking with us today.

SIGEL: I appreciate it. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.