The Baby Boomer Suicide Spike

About five days ago the New York Times published an article reporting on a recent publication by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) where they noted that over the past decade or so (spanning the years 1999-2010) that suicide rates in the US have risen sharply, particularly amongst middle aged men ages 50-59, who saw increases in suicide rates approaching 50 percent, and the most amongst women ages 60-64, with an increase of nearly 60 percent.

Let’s look directly at the so-called ‘per capita’ rates, as in, suicides per 100,000. Amongst the 50-59 year old male baby boomers, rates went up from approximately 20 per 100,000 to 30 per 100,000. As is the usual case amongst males, firearms were the most common means of completing suicide. Amongst 60-64 year old women (women, of course, tending to complete suicide at lower rates overall), rates went from 4.4 per 100,000 to 7 per 100,000. Amongst women, the most common form of suicide was so-called “poisonings” (which the CDC report noted mostly was from prescription medication taken intentionally).

The NY Times and the CDC ascribe the distressing rise in these suicide statistics to “years of economic worry and easy access to prescription painkillers.”

As an aside: Personally, I think the concern about “access to prescription painkillers” is a red herring. If it weren’t for the availability of opioid painkillers (cited as a particular culprit in the CDC report), it would be firearms. If it weren’t for firearms, it would be jumping from tall buildings, carbon monoxide, etc. Although the CDC does study suicide and subjects it to the language and methodology of epidemiology, suicide is not just something that happens to people, like viruses or infections – they are purposeful acts. My belief is that yes, restricting some particular means of suicide might arguably reduce the risk of perhaps a very small percentage of suicides on the margins (the ones committed on the spur of the moment) – however, the political difficulty and social costs associated with meaningfully restricting people’s access to lethal means (e.g., banning guns and designing effective drug prohibition is obviously unrealistic in my view) make this kind of suicide prevention / reduction approach unrealistic at best.

More germane to my profession as a psychologist is the question of whether the choice of suicide is made more likely when there is the presence of significant psychiatric illness…. That being said, what is the choice baby boomers are making here? What’s going on with them? Note that in this most recent report, there were very small increases in suicide rates in younger adults (under the age of 65) and slight decreases in rates of suicide for older adults (65+) in this same report. So, basically (aside from modest but significant increases in rates for so-called Gen-Xers (e.g., those 35-44… at least the younger Gen-Xers), the bulk of the increases in suicide rates was restricted to the Baby Boom generation, the generation born after WWII.

What do we know about them? We know that this is a generation of Americans who were born into an era characterized by increasing prosperity, increasing rates of technological innovation, and the US basically straddling the world as an imperial superpower. This was also a generation that could do anything – they ended the Vietnam War. They *were* the Civil Rights movement. They booted Nixon from the White House. They are doctors, lawyers, MBAs; this is a generation that has not experienced a Great Depression (at least, arguably, not until now). So, are Baby Boomers less “resilient” than other generations?

It should be kept in mind that the phenomenon of increasing suicide completion rates during periods of great economic upheaval are not unheard of, and in fact similar rises and overall levels of suicide completion rates (particularly amongst men, again) were seen during America’s Great Depression.

What is to be done about this? Obviously it’s incredibly demoralizing to see one’s stock market portfolio get nearly wiped out, particularly as one is nearing retirement. It’s terrifying to lose one’s job, particularly if it’s one you’ve been working at for years (and were planning to work a few more to make up for that hit to your portfolio), and then to realize you can’t ever get that job back again, and if you’re lucky to work again, you end up with a paycheck possibly half of what you made before. These are the kinds of life events that require enormous amounts of resilience.

Again, so what to do? Encouraging the utilization of more mental health assistance for older adults, particularly Baby Boomers, is not a bad idea, obviously. On the one hand, there are reasons for optimism in saving more suicide victims if we take the mass approach of improving access to mental health services, as far as Boomers are concerned… while the members of the so-called “Greatest Generation” (WWII-era oldsters, those, say, 75 and up) have been, in my opinion, notoriously stoic and resistant to the ministrations of psychologists and therapists, Boomers at least are more willing to talk to mental health professionals – they grew up with Bettelheim, Transactional Analysis, and the self-help movement. They are not afraid of mental health treatment.

On the other hand, realize that us mental health professionals and geropsychologists can’t do this alone, we’re not magicians, and we’re now probably in the middle portion (at best) of one of the most wrenching periods of economic upheaval in our history as a nation. Suicide prevention is a family issue and a community problem. People choose suicide when they feel like there are no alternatives, when the losses are too big, and when they feel there is no way out, and most importantly, when they feel alone. All I can say is that family and friends are here to remind us that there’s more to life than some imaginary pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.