For a growing number of Americans, the weight of everyday life is too much to bear. According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans age 35 to 64 increased by almost 30 percent, from 13.7 to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people.
In 2010, there were 38,364 suicides in the United States — that’s 105 per day — compared with 36,909 suicides in 2009. Per capita, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Idaho have the highest rates of self-inflicted deaths.
“Suicide is a tragedy that is far too common,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden in a press release Friday. “The stories we hear of those who are impacted by suicide are very difficult. This report highlights the need to expand our knowledge of risk factors so we can build on prevention programs that prevent suicide.”
Taken alone, these numbers point to a growing national tragedy; in conjunction with suicide rates globally, these rates reflect the real-world implications of the downturn in the world’s economy and the unavailability — real or perceived — of help for those who most desperately need it.
The upturn in suicide rates occurred around the time when the global economy took a downturn. According to a letter to the Lancet medical journal, scientists from the U.S., Hong Kong and the U.K. concluded that the CDC data indicates a slow rise in suicide rates from 1999 to 2007, but a quadrupling of rates from 2008 to 2010.
“There is a clear need to implement policies to promote mental health resilience during the ongoing recession,” said Aaron Reeves of the U.K.’s University of Cambridge, who headed the group that submitted the letter to the Lancet. “In the run-up to the U.S. presidential election, President Obama and Mitt Romney are debating how best to spur economic recovery, [but] missing from this discussion is consideration of how to protect Americans’ health during these hard times.”
This may explain the spike in suicide rates among baby boomers. “The boomers had great expectations for what their life might look like, but I think perhaps it hasn’t panned out that way,” said Julie Phillips, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University. “All these conditions the boomers are facing, future cohorts are going to be facing many of these conditions as well.” Baby boomers are typically defined as persons who were born between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Vietnam War. It was at this time when birth rates in the U.S. skyrocketed.
“It is the baby boomer group where we see the highest rates of suicide,” CDC Deputy Director Dr. Ileana Arias told the New York Times. “There may be something about that group, and how they think about life issues and their life choices that may make a difference.”
“Some sociologists believe that large birth cohorts are characterized by greater competition for resources, which strains relationships,” agrees Dr. Thomas Ellis, director of psychology for the Menninger Clinic in Houston, Texas. “If this is true, we should expect to see increases in suicides among the elderly as baby boomer age. Adding to boomer stress is the fact that their parents are living longer, children are staying at home longer, and income is stagnant. However, we must hasten to add that the vast majority of boomers do not kill themselves. It is possible that this stressful situation combines with other vulnerabilities (such as a genetic propensity to depression and impulsivity) to push at-risk individuals over the line toward self-destruction.”
The CDC data indicates that there is an increased rate of poisoning deaths, including intentional overdoses of prescription medication. Increased use of prescription painkillers, such as oxycodone, reflects the uptick in self-poisoning among boomers. Between 1999 and 2010, poisoning deaths were up 24 percent, while deaths by suffocation (which include hangings) were up 81 percent.
Some experts feel that the recession — which devastated job prospects in many manufacturing-heavy states, and which recent research has shown most Americans have not recovered from — may have pushed already-troubled individuals over the brink. Pat Smith, a violence-prevention program coordinator for the Michigan Department of Community Health feels that being unable to find a job or settling for one with lower pay or prestige could add “that final weight to a whole chain of events.”
Coupled with cutbacks to government mental health programs and a generational distrust of psychiatric care, this may signal a perfect storm in which a growing number of individuals desperately need help, but cannot find it.
“We haven’t seen a “spike” so much as a gradual, steady increase over the past decade in suicide deaths among middle-age people — not baby boomers exclusively,” agrees Ellis. “Obviously, the economy has struggled, and we know that unemployment is associated with increased rates of suicide, but rates had already begun to rise well before the start of the recession in 2007.”
“The past decade has seen a significant decline in availability of mental health services, especially in the public sector; I am not aware of research establishing a causal link with suicide, but this is not an unreasonable hypothesis,” Ellis continued. “Finally, it is important to recognize that interpersonal connection is a key buffer between stress and suicide. One wonders about social trends such as the stridency of political dialogue in recent years and declining participation in organized religion in reducing a sense of community and exacerbating the impact of stress in our busy lives.”
Suicide is the fourth-largest killer among middle-aged Americans, behind cancer, heart disease and accidental death.
A global crisis
The release of the CDC report is paralleled by the release of preliminary data by the U.S. Department of Defense in January that showed 165 active duty personnel and 126 non-active duty personnel attempted suicide in 2012. This marks a 15 percent increase over 2011 levels. The Army is reporting a suicide rate of over 32 deaths per 100,000 people.
CDC research shows that White, middle-aged men are the most suicidal, with suicide rates among them jumping 27 percent from 1999 to 2010, from 21.5 deaths per 100,000 to 27.3. Women in the same socioeconomic bracket had suicide rates that increased 31.5 percent over the same time period, from 6.2 deaths per 100,000 to 8.1. The highest rate increases were seen in the 50- to 54-year-old males, 55- to 59-year-old males and 60 to 64-year-old females; they saw rate increases from 20.6 deaths per 100,000 people to 30.7 (49.4 percent change), 20.3 to 30.0 (47.8 percent change) and 4.4 to 7.0 (59.7 percent change), respectively.
This is not just an American issue. According to the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), in 2011 there were 6,045 suicides of people aged 15 and older in the United Kingdom, making suicide the leading cause of death for young men in the U.K. According to the Office for National Statistics, 4,552 males and 1,493 females committed suicide in the U.K. Among men aged 30 to 44, there was a suicide rate of 23.5 deaths per 100,000. Research from the University of Liverpool suggest that the recent British recession is responsible for 846 male and 155 female suicides across the U.K.