Suicide rates rose in the past decade in the U.S. and, to the consternation of public health officials, the most among those in middle age. Suicide has been “typically viewed” as a problem among teenagers and the elderly but the new figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that, among those aged 35 to 64, the suicide rate has gone up by nearly 30 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people.
Americans are now more likely to die at their own hand by suffocating, poisoning or firearms than from a car accident. In 2010, there were 38,364 suicides vs. 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle crashes.
Suicide has also occurred in far more men than women: the suicide rate for middle-aged American males was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000 for women.
There was a “small increase” in suicides among teenagers and a “small decline” among elderly individuals. But the rise in suicides among the baby boomer generation and among whites in particular — the suicide rate for middle-age blacks and Hispanics remained consistent — stood out in the CDC’s findings. The suicide rate for middle-aged whites has gone up by 40 percent.
CDC researchers highlighted the economic downturn as a possible contributing factor. Higher suicide rates have been recorded in earlier periods of economic hardship. Suicide rates have significantly increased in Europe, where economists predict the recession to continue and recent data show that Germany’s economy is now contracting as have those of France, Italy and Spain.
Why the Rise in Suicide Rates Among Baby Boomers?
The U.S.’s baby boomer generation already had an “unusually high suicide rate” as adolescents. The CDC report cites job loss as a factor as well as the increased availability of prescription opioids. It also highlights the double demand that has fallen on many in middle age, caring for elderly parents while still supporting older children who, also due to the economic downturn, have struggled to find jobs, with many still living with their parents.
A study published last fall found that life expectancy for baby boomers aged 57 to 61 who lose their jobs and their health insurance could be decreased by as much as three years. Could the baby boomers turn out to be the greatest victims of the Great Recession?
Of this generation, raised in the postwar period when the U.S.’s economic and political might were on the rise, Ileana Arias, deputy director of the CDC, says “there may be something about that group, and how they think about life issues and their life choices that may make a difference” that can be correlated with higher suicide rates. Julie Phillips, a Rutgers University sociology professor who has done research on rising suicide rates, comments that baby boomers indeed “had great expectations for what their life might look like, but I think perhaps it hasn’t panned out that way.” The actual suicide rate could be even higher; Philips underscores that suicide is “vastly underreported.” She also says that, given trends in marriage rates and changing family situations, the rise in suicides is not likely to “abate for future generations.”
The CDC’s report makes for difficult reading. But it is a call for stepping up efforts to prevent suicides and also to support family members after someone is lost. Nancy Berliner, whose nearly 58-year-old husband took his own life two years ago, emphasizes the need for “society to become more comfortable with discussing it,” specifically so those left behind “will not have this stigma” and unending thoughts and self-questioning about what could have been done differently.
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