Means restriction works in part because suicide is often an unplanned act. The time between a suicidal impulse arising and a person acting on that impulse can be as little as five minutes. A person who dies by suicide has traditionally been represented as someone at the end of a long, tortured battle with depression, but this is generally not the case. While having a mental illness is a strong predictor of suicide risk, most people with mental illness will never attempt suicide.
Reducing access to means allows time for the impulse to pass, and the person may never want to try again. One study found that only about 7 percent of people who attempted suicide went on to take their own lives within the following five years.
SUICIDES AREN’T evenly distributed around the world. According to the World Health Organization’s most recent estimates, nearly 80 percent of suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries, where most of the world’s population lives, but high-income countries tend to have higher suicide rates. The general global decline in suicides also hides pockets of the world where rates are climbing—countries like Zimbabwe, Jamaica, South Korea, and Cameroon.
One high-income country is a particular exception to the downward trend: the US. Though rates in the country declined throughout the 1990s, at the turn of the century they began to rise again. Between 2000 and 2018, the suicide rate jumped 35 percent. Suicide is the second-highest cause of death among young Americans aged 10–14 and 20–35 years old.
You might be shouting: The answer is guns! And you’d be mostly right. In the US, over half of all gun deaths are suicides. In 2021 alone, over 26,000 people died by suicide using a firearm, out of the just over 48,000 recorded suicide deaths in total. Research has found that the states with higher rates of household gun ownership also have significantly higher suicide rates. Limiting gun access remains the “most important actionable public health target for firearm suicide prevention efforts,” according to a 2022 paper looking at the country’s climbing suicide rate.
Suicides linked to guns are “totally preventable,” says Alexis Palfreyman, an honorary research fellow at University College London who researches mental health, suicidology, violence, and sexual and reproductive health and rights. She points to Brazil, which enacted firearms restrictions in 2003, including making it illegal to carry or own an unregistered gun, raising the minimum age for purchase to 25 years old, and instituting background checks for purchase. It led to a 27 percent reduction in firearm suicides. “It’s just such a shame that we don’t seem to think that it’s worth the lives saved to actually do it,” Palfreyman says of the US.
Other factors may be contributing to rising suicide rates in the US, including structural racism, financial strain (driven by income inequality, personal debt, and unemployment, to name but a few issues), the opioid epidemic, and a societal structure that features significant social isolation. Mental health disorders on the whole are on the rise in the US, which may also help explain the trend. But with firearms involved in over half of suicides, it’s impossible to deny that guns are playing an outsize role.