The British Coal-Gas Story
According to Scott Anderson’s NYT article, the little-known British coal-gas story — even among mental health professionals — is a good example of how suicides can be prevented if one takes away the means:
For generations, the people of Britain heated their homes and fueled their stoves with coal gas. While plentiful and cheap, coal-derived gas could also be deadly; in its unburned form, it released very high levels of carbon monoxide, and an open valve or a leak in a closed space could induce asphyxiation in a matter of minutes. This extreme toxicity also made it a preferred method of suicide. “Sticking one’s head in the oven” became so common in Britain that by the late 1950s it accounted for some 2,500 suicides a year, almost half the nation’s total.
Those numbers began dropping over the next decade as the British government embarked on a program to phase out coal gas in favor of the much cleaner natural gas. By the early 1970s, the amount of carbon monoxide running through domestic gas lines had been reduced to nearly zero. During those same years, Britain’s national suicide rate dropped by nearly a third, and it has remained close to that reduced level ever since.
Experts seems to insist that committing suicide is proof of an underlying mental illness. Suicide that stems from impulsivity, among these experts, is also considered part of a mental illness. Anderson subtly argues against this, and I find myself agreeing with him:
How can this be? After all, if the impulse to suicide is primarily rooted in mental illness and that illness goes untreated, how does merely closing off one means of self-destruction have any lasting effect? At least a partial answer is that many of those Britons who asphyxiated themselves did so impulsively. In a moment of deep despair or rage or sadness, they turned to what was easy and quick and deadly — “the execution chamber in everyone’s kitchen,” as one psychologist described it — and that instrument allowed little time for second thoughts. Remove it, and the process slowed down; it allowed time for the dark passion to pass.
Would this mean that if people had less access to suicidal means that promoted “ease, speed, and certainty of death” (ESCOD), a number of suicides could be averted? It appears so. Anderson continues to make a case using the Ellington Bridge in Northwest Washington as an example: