Pinpointing the causes has been difficult, but economic woes and the proliferation of prescription medications have been widely cited.
Rates of depression and suicide are at an all-time high in the United States, according to the latest data released by the Center for Disease Control. The data highlights a startling trend for mental health professionals as middle-aged Americans, part of the baby boom generation, experienced the sharpest increase in suicides. The increase is difficult to unravel given this demographic’s lower suicide rate historically compared to adolescents and senior citizens.
For men in their 50s, the suicide rate went up by nearly 50 percent — to 30 cases per 100,000 people. Rates of suicide among American women in their early 60s rose by nearly 60 percent but remain relatively low compared with men, at 7 per 100,000.
These numbers, already troubling for health professionals, may actually understate the problem because some suicides go unreported.
“It’s vastly underreported,” Julie Phillips, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University who has published research on rising suicide rates, told the New York Times. “We know we’re not counting all suicides.”
The sandwich generation feels the pinch
Pinpointing the causes of this increase has been difficult, but some believe that widespread economic woes and the proliferation of potent prescription medications could be the main causes of this growing epidemic.
Unlike their parents’ generation, many baby boomers have felt a financial pinch. After paying for their children’s costly college educations, they have been forced to provide additional financial support when the kids struggle to find work after graduation. This is compounded when some have to care for aging parents.
It’s a difficult situation made even more difficult by the 2008 financial crisis, which eliminated thousands of jobs, wiped away $11 billion in personal wealth and led to more than 10 million home foreclosures across the U.S. As the economy slowly improves, many families across the U.S. continue to feel financial pressures.
“Someone might still be working, but their house is underwater, or they’re working but they’re working part-time,” said Eric Caine, director of the CDC’s Injury Control Research Center for Suicide Prevention.
“The rise in suicides may also stem from the economic downturn over the past decade. Historically, suicide rates rise during times of financial stress and economic setbacks,” reports the New York Times.
The AARP reports that boomers have had to deal with the stress of being the so-called “sandwich generation, caring for aging parents while still providing financial and emotional support to adult children — something past generations haven’t felt.”
This theory is supported by the CDC experts who authored the study.
“It may not be that [boomers] are more sensitive or that they have a predisposition to suicide, but that they may be dealing with more,” the CDC’s deputy director, Ileana Arias, told the New York Times.
“The increase does coincide with a decrease in financial standing for a lot of families over the same time period,” she said.
For Frank Turkaly, a retiree from Pennsylvania, his chronic depression stemmed from a disability. He lives on disability checks, is saddled with credit card debt, and takes medication for depression, cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure.
After years of suffering, Turkaly tried to take his own life by taking tranquilizers but survived to speak of the woes felt by his generation.
“People were more in tune with each other, people were more prone to help each other,” Turkaly told the Washington Post. “There was not this big segregation between the poor and the rich… I thought it was going to continue the same, I didn’t think it was going to change.”
At least one expert told the Times that the risk for suicide is not likely to decrease in the near future as the next generation faces the same pressures.
“All these conditions the boomers are facing, future cohorts are going to be facing many of these conditions as well,” Phillips told the Times.
Despite the growing problem, fewer public resources are available to help those at risk of suicide. The federal spending cuts known as sequestration have eliminated funding for mental health programs that could help people battling with depression and anxiety.
According to the Office for Budget Management, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration lost about $275 million under sequestration.
This means that 684,000 individuals will lose employment and housing assistance, case management services, and school-based support, according to the advocacy organization Mental Health America.
Easy access to prescription drugs
The proliferation of powerful prescription drugs could to blame for the increase in suicides, as well.
A report released by the CDC in April highlights an epidemic sweeping the U.S., with 100 people dying every day from prescription drug overdoses — a figure that has more than tripled since 1990. In 2008, deaths from prescription drugs reached an all-time high of 12,000.
“In a period of nine months, a tiny Kentucky county of fewer than 12,000 people sees a 53-year-old mother, her 35-year-old son and seven others die by overdosing on pain medication obtained from pain clinics in Florida,” the CDC reports. “In Utah, a 13-year-old fatally overdoses on oxycodone pills taken from a friend’s grandmother.”
The CDC reports that nearly 3 out of 4 prescription drug overdoses are caused by prescription painkillers, also called “opioid pain relievers.” Since 1999, the sale of strong painkillers has increased 300 percent.
The Food and Drug Administration is now looking into ways to reduce prescription drug abuse by targeting manufacturers that produce and sell the drugs.
“The data supporting long-term use of opiates for pain, other than cancer pain, is scant to nonexistent,” CDC Director Tom Frieden told the LA Times. “These are dangerous drugs. They’re not proven to have long-term benefit for non-cancer pain, and they’re being used to the detriment to hundreds of thousands of people in this country.”
Cracking down on prescription drug abuse has been made possible by computerized drug monitoring programs that track prescriptions for painkillers and other commonly abused narcotics from doctor to pharmacy to patient. Frieden said these programs should be used to monitor doctors’ prescription habits as well as patient use.
But funding has become a hindrance for these programs, too. In California, the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program tracks prescriptions drugs like hydrocodone and oxycodone electronically but lacks the necessary funding to be fully effective.
The sequester in March has already eliminated $12.4 million in grants for California to treat substance abuse.