Securing Hope: Strategies for Lethal Means Safety, With Emmy Betz, M.D.

By Lytaria B. Walker, Directorate of Prevention, Resilience and ReadinessMay 2, 2024

“Lethal means safety is important because suicide isn’t inevitable,” says Emmy Betz, M.D., MPH, an emergency physician and nationally recognized expert in preventing firearm injuries and suicide. Betz is a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, where she is the founding director of the Firearm Injury Prevention Initiative. She has been invited to work with numerous organizations spanning the civilian– veteran spectrum.

Betz says that lethal means safety is a bit of a clunky term. But generally, it refers to the role that the method of suicide plays in the likelihood that someone will die and the recognition that we need to take steps to reduce access to those lethal methods. Betz gives a practical example: She says jumping off of a high bridge is likely to be lethal. So, in turn, many communities have put barriers on bridges. These barriers make it difficult for someone experiencing a suicide crisis to jump.

Lethal means safety is also important because we have determined that if someone can’t access the method that they were planning to use, they don’t automatically switch to another method. Betz says this highlights that suicide is preventable. “So there is hope.” She goes on to say that the reason we know that most people don’t substitute methods is that the period of a suicide crisis can be very brief. “There might be a lot of things leading up to it. But we know from science that the time from deciding to take action to actually doing it can be in the space of minutes to hours. And so, putting time and distance between someone and a lethal method can be lifesaving.” She says that’s why it’s important to really focus on reducing access to the most lethal methods of suicide—to get people through that temporary crisis and get them the help they need. Betz says that this leads to more people surviving.

According to Betz, lethal means safety is just one part of what we think about as a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention. She says that we need to also be thinking about things like encouraging help-seeking behavior and destigmatizing getting help when we're in a tough patch. We also need to ensure that people have access to effective treatments and that our communities are engaging and more supportive overall—specifically, how we support people after a suicide attempt, as well as those around them.

Betz says there are several misconceptions regarding lethal-means safety, especially as it relates to firearms. “This is not about gun control, confiscation or legislation. We are talking about voluntary actions that people can take for themselves, their families and their communities.” She equates it to the designated-driver approach. Betz says: “We’re not asking someone to give up their driver’s license. We’re not telling them that they can never drink again. We’re only saying, ‘Hey, we want to keep you safe while you’re not at your best.’ Basically, you do what you can to ensure they get home safely.”

Betz emphasizes that if there is one thing that you can do for your family in terms of suicide prevention, it’s reducing access to lethal means, particularly access to firearms. “This could be the difference between life and death. This is about us supporting cultural changes to prevent the injuries and the deaths that nobody wants to see.” To hear more of Betz’s discussion of lethal means safety, listen to episode 18 of the DPRR podcast or watch the recording of the Securing Hope: Strategies for Lethal Means Safety webinar.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a suicide crisis and needs help, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 and press 1 for the Military Crisis Line.