Updated 23 June 2014

Guns and suicide

Gun Free South Africa looks at the role of firearms in suicide.


For World Suicide Prevention Day, Gun Free South Africa looks at the role of firearms in suicide.

Firearms are used in 14% of suicides in South Africa

Hangings account for (46%) of suicides in South Africa, followed by poisonings (17%) and firearms (14%). Nearly 70% of all suicide victims are aged between 15-44 years. Deaths due to suicide are highest among youth aged 15-29 years (36%) followed by adults aged 30-44 (33%). There are four male suicides for every female suicide. The major external causes of suicide among males are hanging (50%) and firearms (15%); while among females it is poisoning (38%) and hanging (30%).

Why do people take their lives?

Many factors lead individuals to try to end their lives. Drug and alcohol dependence and abuse, depression and certain other mental illnesses, impulsiveness and aggressiveness, family history of suicide, parental psychopathology, previous attempts, and recent losses or setbacks (like a relationship break-up, arrest, or job problem) are risk factors for suicide deaths and attempts.

The why of suicide is important, but a growing body of research indicates that how people attempt suicide is also important. Reducing access to lethal means is an effective way to increase the odds that a suicide attempt will end in care, not in death.

When do people take their lives?

Many suicide attempts occur impulsively during a crisis. A study of people in the United States (US) who nearly died in a suicide attempt, were asked: “How much time passed between the time you decided to complete suicide and when you actually attempted suicide?”2

  • 24% said less than five minutes.
  • Another 47% said an hour or less.

Although some people who die by suicide plan their act carefully, many don’t. In fact, many take their lives within 24 hours of a crisis – like an argument with a family member or a relationship break-up. One third of youths who died by suicide in the US had faced a crisis within 24 hours.

There are different ways to help prevent suicides, but one step is clear. Reducing a suicidal person’s access to lethal means helps save lives, particularly among impulsive attempters. Firearms are the most lethal suicide method. Suicide attempts with a firearm are almost always fatal, while those with other methods are less likely to kill. And nine out of ten people who survive an attempt do not go on to die by suicide later.

(Gun Free South Africa, September 2012)

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