Efforts to curb access to the means to kill oneself can help, too. Suicide is surprisingly impulsive. A study of young Chinese women who had tried to kill themselves showed that three-fifths had been contemplating suicide for less than two hours, and one in ten for less than a minute. Of 515 people who had survived the leap from San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge between 1937 and 1971, 94% were still alive in 1978—which suggests that a suicide postponed is likely to be a suicide prevented.
Governments can do a lot to put self-slaughter a little further out of reach. The most toxic pesticides account for one-seventh of suicides. When South Korea outlawed paraquat in 2011, it saw a decline in suicides but no drop in agricultural output. Requiring potentially lethal medicines to be sold only in small quantities, as some countries have done with aspirin and paracetamol, has also been shown to help. But the most effective measure of all is limiting access to guns. Half of all Americans who commit suicide shoot themselves, and the overall rate in America is about twice that in Britain, which has strict gun controls. The difference in gun ownership largely accounts for the state-by-state variation in suicide rates.
The media can also do their bit. Suicide is strangely contagious. When Robin Williams, an actor, killed himself in 2014, his method and motives were reported in great detail. Researchers calculated that there were 1,800 more suicides than would otherwise have been expected in the next four months, often using the same method. Journalists should cover such tragedies in less detail, and with more restraint.
For a few people—those who are terminally ill, in severe pain and determined to die—suicide may be the least terrible option. In such circumstances, and with firm safeguards, doctors should be allowed to assist. But many of the 800,000 people who kill themselves each year act in haste, and more could be saved with better health services, labour-market policies and curbs on booze, guns, pesticide and pills. America, in particular, could spare much pain by learning from the progress elsewhere.