Every year, nearly 40,000 Americans kill themselves. The majority are men, and most of them use guns. In fact, more than half of all gun deaths in the United States are suicides.
Experts and laymen have long assumed that people who died by suicide will ultimately do it even if temporarily deterred. “People think if you’re really intent on dying, you’ll find a way,” said Cathy Barber, the director of the Means Matters campaign at Harvard Injury Control Research Center.
Prevention, it follows, depends largely on identifying those likely to harm themselves and getting them into treatment. But a growing body of evidence challenges this view.
Suicide can be a very impulsive act, especially among the young, and therefore difficult to predict. Its deadliness depends more upon the means than the determination of the suicide victim.
Now many experts are calling for a reconsideration of suicide-prevention strategies. While mental health and substance abuse treatment must always be important components in treating suicidality, researchers like Ms. Barber are stressing another avenue: “means restriction.”
Instead of treating individual risk, means restriction entails modifying the environment by removing the means by which people usually die by suicide. The world cannot be made suicide-proof, of course. But, these researchers argue, if the walkway over a bridge is fenced off, a struggling college freshman cannot throw herself over the side. If parents leave guns in a locked safe, a teenage son cannot shoot himself if he suddenly decides life is hopeless.