Most lethal methods of suicide

For information on the most lethal methods of suicide, a good starting point is the statistics on the number of successful suicides by method (see Suicide statistics). There is also a much published study from 19951, where 291 lay persons and 10 forensic pathologists rated the lethality, time, and agony for 28 methods of suicide for 4,117 cases of completed suicide in Los Angeles County in the period 1988-1991.

They were asked to rate each method as follows:

  • Lethality: How likely is the method to cause death (where 0% is no chance, and 100% is absolute certainty)

  • Time: An opinion on the length of time the method will require to produce death

  • Agony: The amount of pain and discomfort you would expect from the use of the particular method (ranked on scale of 0 to 100 where 0 is no pain/discomfort and 100 is the most pain/discomfort possible)

The outcome of the study is presented below, ranked by order of lethality from just the pathologists who participated in the study (the lay persons tended to drastically overestimate the lethality of methods).

Anyone reading this table to identify a suitable method of suicide is advised to read carefully the information on the dangers of the suicide methods mentioned on this site, and visit the section Help me, because statistically you are much more likely to hurt yourself by attempting suicide than to succeed killing yourself (see Suicide statistics for more information).

Rank

Method Name

Lethality (%)

Time (min)

Agony

1

Shotgun to head

99.0%

1.7

5.5

2

Cyanide

97.0%

1.8

51.5

3

Gunshot of head

97.0%

2.5

13

4

Shotgun to chest

96.4%

1.4

16

5

Explosives

96.4%

1.6

3.75

6

Hit by train

96.2%

17.92

7.08

7

Jump from height

93.4%

4.56

17.78

8

Gunshot of chest

89.5%

7

21.7

9

Hanging

89.5%

7

25.5

10

Auto crash

78.5%

20.5

30

11

Household toxins

77.5%

24

54.5

12

Set fire to self

76.5%

57

95

13

Structure fire

73.0%

52.5

91.5

14

Carbon Monoxide

71.0%

21.5

18

15

Hit by truck/auto

70.0%

19

63

16

Electrocution

65.5%

2.4

72

17

Gunshot of abdomen

65.0%

69

74

18

Drowning ocean/lake

63.0%

18.5

79

19

Stab of chest

58.5%

96

76

20

Cut throat

51.5%

15.5

86

21

Overdose illegal drugs

49.4%

116.25

5.25

22

Plastic bag over head

23.0%

7

23

23

Drowning bathtub

21.5%

18.5

79

24

Drowning swimming pool

21.5%

18.5

79

25

Stab of abdomen

12.5%

252

78

26

Overdose prescription drugs

12.3%

129

8.5

27

Overdose non-prescription drugs

6.0%

456

22.5

28

Cut wrists/arms/legs

6.0%

105

71

In the study, there were significant differences between the methods chosen by females and males, with males choosing the most lethal and quickest methods, and females selecting methods varying in lethality, duration, and agony.

However, it should be noted that different studies produce different results of the fatality of different methods. For instance, JJ Card2 estimated the lethality of suicide by guns as only 91.6% effective, and Farberow and Shneidman3 had it as low as 84.7%. The Hawaii Department of Health (1990) had it even lower at 73%. The same studies showed the effectiveness of hanging to vary between 77% and 88%.

Whilst individual studies might differ in terms of the actual mortality rate, they are fairly consistent that firearms and hanging are the two most effective methods. Jumping is also very effective if done from sufficient height.

However, the official data does not provide any detailed information on how to use any one method, information on the pros and cons, details on the likely pain of any method, or the likely pitfalls.

The Peaceful Pill Handbook by Nitschke & Stewart4 also ranks a number of suicide methods using its “Reliability & Peacefulness (RP)” test, although they only rank methods involving drugs or asphyxiation.

On this website, information from a variety of sources is provided on a variety of suicide methods, centred around those that are most effective or popular. Depending on the method selected, readers of this site are recommended to do their own Further reading.

Sources

  1. CE Rhyne, DI Templer, LG Brown and NB Peters, “Dimensions of Suicide: Perceptions of Lethality, Time and Agony”, in Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, Vol. 25(3), 1995.

  2. JJ Card, "Lethality of suicidal methods and suicide risk: Two distinct concepts", Omega 5, 1974.

  3. NL Farberow and ES Shneidman, The Cry for Help, 1961.

  4. Dr Phillip Nitschke with Dr Fiona Stewart, The Peaceful Pill eHandbook, revised 10 October 2009.