Whilst jumping from height can be a very effective method of suicide (providing it is from sufficient height), it does not account for a particularly high percentage of suicides in either the US or the UK. Having said that, in Honk Kong it accounted for over half of all suicides in 20061, so easy access to tall buildings seems to impact the propensity to use this method.
The most important factor in suicide by jumping is height. Stone2 states that jumping from 150 feet (46 metres) or higher on land, and 250 feet (76 metres) or more on water, is 95% to 98% fatal. 150 feet/46 metres, equates to roughly 10 to 15 stories in a building, depending on the height of one story. 250 feet is the height of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Ideally, anyone jumping on land should try and land on their head, as this maximises the chances of fatal head injuries. In a study by Goonetilleke3, head impact was the most frequent landing area in fatal falls. If a person is jumping from lower heights, going head first becomes even more important, as the chances of death reduce the shorter the drop, and brain haemorrhage is the most frequent cause of death for jumpers.
It should go without saying that great care should be taken when jumping to not land on any person, or anything that might break the fall. It is also important to land on something hard, and not a forgiving surface like soft grass or sand that might cushion the fall. High cliffs with rocky landings are likely to fulfil the requirement for height, a hard landing and not having anyone underneath. Beachy Head in East Sussex, UK, is a notorious suicide spot for this reason.
Although the causes of death by jumping off a height into water differ to those on land, jumping feet first should be avoided as a perfect entry into the water may end up in survival, but with significant spinal injuries. Jumping from 250 feet means the speed of impact to the water is over 70mph, but whilst deceleration on a hard surface is instant, in the water deceleration is slower, and death tends to be caused from fatal chest injuries4. Really, jumping from this height it should not make an enormous difference what part of the body enters first.
There is one essential point to be made when considering jumping as a method of suicide - jump from too low, and there is significant risk of non-fatal injuries. Stone2 presents worrying statistics from a number of studies showing a high percentage of people jumping from four stories or less. Of those, a high percentage survive, invariably with fractures to spine, pelvis or major bone. Landing on the head can cause brain damage. Even jumping from seven stories can have a decent survival rate.
Jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge still does not guarantee death, as a study of 885 jumpers found that 19 (around 2%) survived5,6, although it is likely some (undiscovered) suicides did not even make it to the statistics, meaning the likely true percentage of survivors is less than 2%. Still, the point is that it is possible to survive even jumping from a renowned suicide spot. Jump off a lower bridge and the chances of survival will be much higher.
Possibly the reason jumping is not a popular suicide method is that self-preservation instincts can prevent someone from making the jump, and there can be time to reflect and decide against jumping on the journey to the chosen jump site, or even on the edge of it. So anyone considering this method needs to consider this, and plan their location for jumping very carefully.
Providing the jump is from sufficient height, certainty of death is very high. Jumping from insufficient height gives a fair chance of survival, with high probability of significant, and often long term, physical injury, plus possibly brain damage. As such, this method is not recommended for a suicidal gesture.
Whoever discovers or has to identify the body is likely to be faced with a particularly gruesome corpse, especially if the jump has been on land.
Anyone seriously considering jumping as a method of suicide is also advised to read Help me first.
HKJC Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, University of Hong Kong. Method Used in Completed Suicide, 2006. http://csrp.hku.hk/WEB/eng/statistics.asp#3.
Geo Stone, Suicide and Attempted Suicide, 1999.
A Goonetilleke, Injuries caused by falls from heights. Med Sci Law. 1980.
RG Snyder, Fatal injuries resulting from extreme water impact, United States. Office of Aviation Medicine 1968.
GM Lukas, JE Hutton Jr, RC Lim, C Mathewson Jr. Injuries sustained from high velocity impact with water: an experience from the Golden Gate Bridge. The Journal of Trauma, Aug 1981.
George Colt, The Enigma of Suicide, 1991.