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Study could help rural areas get more mental health resources

The study found a correlation between living in rural areas and access to guns. It also identified communities with higher suicide risk among teens.

COLORADO, USA — Researchers at CU Anschutz are hoping a recent study will help parts of rural Colorado get more funding for mental health resources.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open, found that those living in rural or isolated areas often have easier access to handguns and identified which of those may see an increased suicide risk among teens.

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The study, conducted by the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, the University of Colorado Boulder and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs in Aurora, used data from the 2019 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. 

The anonymous survey was completed by 59,556 students in 256 Colorado high schools and for the first time it included a question on firearm access.

It showed a strong correlation between living in rural areas and ease of gun access.

"Firearms are the most lethal means of attempting suicide so if we can keep firearms away from kids who are in crisis we can prevent suicide," said Dr. Ashley Brooks-Russell with the Colorado School of Public Health at CU Anschutz.

Brooks-Russell was the senior author of this study.

She said the study also helped identify which communities have the highest risk for suicide planning prevalence among high school students. 

Brooks-Russell and her team found not all rural areas have a high teen suicide risk -- just the south-central part of the state.

"So that's the area I would be most concerned about because it's both rural and the highest burden of mental health," she said. "There's something going on in rural communities where either it's hunting or other reasons why there are more guns around, but being in a rural community doesn't necessarily increase the risk for mental health concerns."

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The study identified 21 schools in 19 counties that have both a high rate of easy access to guns and a high prevalence of suicidal planning. Of those, 19 schools are in rural areas and 14 are considered remote, according to the study. 

Brooks-Russell said the hope is that this information can help identify where limited mental health and youth firearm safety efforts should be allocated.

“Any state that gathers similar surveillance data can use the information to map and identify hot spots,” she said. “Public health planners and policy makers could then work to direct scarce educational and interventional resources to parts of states that need it most.”

Brooks-Russell said one of the most important things we can do to keep our teens safe from suicide attempts is to make sure firearms in the home are stored properly, locked and unloaded.

RELATED: Mental health and addiction resources for Colorado residents

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