The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report on suicide rates in this country in early May, and the news was shocking. From 1999 to 2010, the age-adjusted suicide rate for 35- to 64-year-olds in the United States was up by 28.4 percent (to 17.6 per 100,000).
Over all, men have a higher rate (27.3 per 100,000) than women (8.1 per 100,000). But most distressing was the demographic where the greatest spike occurred: baby boomers. For men 50 to 54, the increase was 49.4 percent, and 47.8 percent for those 55 to 59. Rates for women increased with age, with a truly disturbing uptick among those 60 to 64 years: That number had jumped 59.7 percent.
And the situation could actually be worse. “It’s vastly underreported,” said Julie Phillips, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University who has researched this grim trend. “We know we’re not counting all suicides.”
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A Dark Period in U.S. History
Parse it any way you like — by race/ethnicity or geography, as the CDC did — but it’s the same bottom line: We are a generation in tremendous pain. The popular M*A*S*H theme song had it wrong: Suicide is not painless. The lifelong grief and disruptions it causes in other people’s lives are unspeakable. Far too many of us have seen the traumas that suicide wreaks on individual families and communities, but there’s another aspect to this: the collective toll it takes on us as a nation.
Today, suicide claims more American lives (38,364) than car accidents (33,687). In the same year studied by this recent CDC report (2010), an estimated 15,529 people with an AIDS diagnosis died. Last year’s tallies are 39,620 deaths from breast cancer and 28,561 from prostate cancer. Veritable wars are being waged to fight these dreaded diseases and to prevent auto accidents. Where is the public outcry over suicide, particularly among boomer adults?
Much attention is focused on preventing teenage suicide. After all, people that age are statistically far more likely to kill themselves because that time of life can be torturous, and young people haven’t developed effective life-coping strategies.
And yet the escalating numbers of middle-aged adults killing themselves has gotten next to no attention — until now. When the CDC report came out, the overwhelming consensus was that the main reason behind the suicide spike was, to borrow a line from James Carville, “the economy, stupid.”
Noting that suicide rates tend to rise during times of financial stress — and 2008 might go down in the history books as one of the worst years in modern American history — Dr. Ileana Arias, CDC deputy director, acknowledged, “The increase does coincide with a decrease in financial standing for a lot of families over the same time period.”
Arias further observed that the spike in suicide rates could be a reflection of a combination of stressors specific to baby boomers. As the sandwich generation, many of us, while fighting our own financial battles, are also taking caring of aging parents, many with dementia, and providing economic and emotional support to our adult children, who are having difficulties launching their own independent lives.
Boomers’ lives “are configured a little differently than it has been in the past for that age group,” Arias said. “It may not be that they are more sensitive or that they have a predisposition to suicide, but that they may be dealing with more.”
Whether it’s biochemical or situational, the net result is the same: People are stressed to the max, financially struggling, pessimistic about their prospects and don’t have the traditional means of support previous generations relied on to get them through wars, epidemics and economic downturns.
In the past, people had family and community to turn to for support and strength and hope. Today we’re a fractured society, with families strewn around the country or globe, and our ancestors' belief that “family is glue” all but eroded. Even people who didn't have close family had strong religious convictions or a network of neighbors. We’re a Velcro society, and we all know what a weak substitute that is.
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Underlying Reasons for Despair
The recent flurry of mass killings in this country has put not only gun control front and center on the national agenda, but has also finally brought out from behind closed (or locked or barred) doors the somewhat taboo topic of mental health as well.
To which I say, ’bout freaking time.
I’m not exactly optimistic, however. Did you know that in 1999, the United States surgeon general issued a National Call to Action to prevent suicide, specifically citing adults age 65 and older as “a priority for prevention”? I didn’t either, but look what good that did. Pundits, psychiatrists and policy wonks can preach from their lofty perches, but apparently that’s not enough to bring about fundamental change.
Every major media outlet reported on the just-released CDC findings, and even more heartbreaking than the statistics themselves were the reader comments. This one, in The New York Times, might be as exemplary of today’s situation as The Grapes of Wrath was of the Great Depression:
“Economic hopelessness. My brother committed suicide last July. He had just turned 60. He lost his IT job during the Great Recession in 2008. Despite hundreds of resumes being sent out, and a lifetime of IT experience, he got few interviews and no job offers. He spent down his 401(k) and when he died the only thing he owned was a beat-up car. We later found out he had a lot of credit card debt, with which he had tried to keep himself afloat. After four years of no job offers, unemployment running out, having no health insurance, etc., his dignity was shot. He had lost hope of ever working again.”
Widening the angle a bit, another reader remarked: “Extremely fast societal, technological and linguistic change leaves many middle-aged or older people feeling disconnected to the present era; many people have little sense of any transcendent meaning to life; incomes for millions have been shrinking relative to inflation for decades; and a venal celebration of hedonism, violence and cynicism abounds in television, the cyber world and elsewhere. These things can make suicide seem like a refuge when you're of a certain age.”
In U.S. News & World Report, one reader cast things in a slightly different light. “Baby Boomers grew up in an America that had traditional values and decency that today are just buzzwords used by the advertising industry to part us with our hard earned cash. We were idealists, we wanted to make the world a better place. The world we live in now is monopolized by greed, legal fraud and moral decay. We spend our lives working long hours only to find no satisfaction, peace or reward at the end of the day. The cost of everything from housing to medical to food has exploded in the last 20 years, yet our earnings are stagnant, and that's the lucky ones who haven't been hustled into bad home loans, or lost their jobs, or had a loved one become seriously ill. We, the working class, find little reason to have hope for a happy calm retirement. Why do so many give up? It's pretty obvious.”
Let the Healing Begin
“Suicide is a tragedy that is far too common,” CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden said in a news release. "This report highlights the need to expand our knowledge of risk factors so we can build on prevention programs that prevent suicide.” Specifically, we need to identify new risks for boomers and help their loved ones learn to recognize the warning signs — and equip them with the tools to support them or intervene if necessary.
For starters, we need to examine the ways in which our families, communities, religious institutions, schools and government are failing their most vulnerable populations. Healing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is going to take a concerted effort on all these levels, and it starts with awareness. The CDC, like many organizations, publishes a checklist of suicide risk factors to watch out for. But to effect lasting change also requires that we take some long hard looks at the way we, as individuals and as a society, are conducting ourselves.
The CDC report was grim news, but if it, like the unacceptable events in Phoenix, Denver and Newtown, Conn., shoves painful and intractable issues so unavoidably in our faces, perhaps we as a nation will be forced to band together and figure out how to make the necessary changes. How many more senseless deaths will it take to spark a movement? Let's not find out.