Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Reasons for a Rise in Mid-Life Suicide

The New York Times just ran an article about a disturbing spike in the number of suicides among middle-aged Americans, which is only just beginning to attract more attention, research, and prevention resources. The hypothetical causes discussed included depression, a decrease in the use of hormone-replacement therapy, and an increase in the use of prescription drugs. I thought for sure that the article would delve into the issue of financial stresses, but it didn't, really, other than alluding to unemployment as a possible trigger, among a list of things such as failed romances and substance abuse. The comments on the Times website, however, immediately hit that topic:

It's the economy, stupid. People aged 45-55 are among those most likely to be downsized, outsourced, laid off. Then they have no insurance or affordable medical care until they reach 65. Life has been getter tougher for many people, and national events are not cause for optimism.

— ajdemar, ca

Another factor is likely the economy. Suicides also tend to increase during severe economic downturns. Remember the "Great Depression?"

— Leo Toribio, Pittsburgh, PA

It's better to take control than to lose control. Life is getting longer, the risks are greater that as I age I will have bankrupting health or other problems and run out of economic resources. Our emphasis on individual rights and the knee-jerk resistance to taxation in this country means we are all on our own, that there is no social safety net in the USA like we see in most Western European countries; if something unforeseen should happen, I don't want to end up on the street or in a nursing home on medicaid... have you seen what that's like? And finally, being gay, I don't have confidence that my oh-so-christian family will be there for me if I should need help. It's a dog eat dog world. Who needs it?

— W, California

Other reasons were also mentioned in the comments, such as 9/11, the war in Iraq, and an increase in ageism in our youth-obsessed culture. Whatever the reasons, it's certainly a sad topic and certainly one that I hope never to have to face in my own family.


Noel Larson said...

It is easy to not see the light at the end of te tunnel. When you are in your 20's restarting doesn't seem like that big of thing, but we all have to face it - the stability our parents had, just isn't there. We all have to be more adaptive then ever. We just have less room for error.

Ms. M&P said...

How sad. There was a good article in Congressional Quarterly a while back about the phenomenon of the "cubicle guy" (I thought it was so interesting I posted on it months ago). It was all about the mid-life demographic, especially males, who never get raises that keep up with their expenses. It basically said that a lot of people feel like they're on a hamster wheel, never getting ahead. The article mentioned that these problems are hitting blue collar and white collar workers--including those with college degrees. Job insecurity and sliding standards of living can really wreck havoc on someone's personal life.

As a side note, it irritates me that the media and other talking heads don't pick up on this underlying current in our society. It makes me think that they're really out of touch with average people.

M said...

The comments are really piling up over there. I think reading all/most of the comments, and then as Mrs M and P said, doing a story on the patterns and trends that come up there, would be interesting and important.

I can relate to, empathize with every comment I've read over there so far, and yet, as already mentioned, don't see these issues covered often enough in traditional media.

This is an important topic--not just the suicides themselves, but also the underlying reasons that many who don't kill themselves are also struggling with. I'm really glad you posted on it.

Anonymous said...

All the more reason for financial stability. I learned early that as long as you have your health, you can always work and support yourself. Yes, possible lack of health care is very scary, but if I lose my good job, I'd like to think I'd be able to move to a smaller place, downsize and make it on $10/hr if I had to without feeling overwhelmed with pressure. But, I also don't have kids, a Mc Mansion or a new SUV (2 of these are within everyone's control...).

Unfortunately, the US is an every man for himself country...and most of the people who profess the value of this cry the hardest when they're alone.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm 46 and I was fired after one month. I was the fifth secretary this b**** had - in four months! I do have benefits till 2/29; so, if I die by Friday my husband cashes in!

I am being sarcastic, but so unhappy at being fired. I didn't even get a chance.

Anonymous said...

Middle age America is told the following: You should be living like you're in your twenties (but odds are I'm obese and roll out of bed with stiff muscles). You should be saving anywhere from $2000 to $5000 a month to afford bread in retirement (most of us don't have $50K in the bank because of divorce, failed attempts at following our "passions", shitty jobs, etc.) You can't count on Social Security because it's going to go bust (which means I'll likely have to work until I die). You should be seeking your passion in life and should be flipping giddy about the job you currently have (most still aren't sure what their passion even is, and if they ever had one it's long dead and buried). Oh, and by the way, per the media, you suffer from flabby breasts, erectile dysfunction, depression, need cosmetic surgery, don't drive a cool car, don't live in a decent house, don't know crap about fashion, are a failure if you can't affort $250K per kid for college, and are stupid if you don't have the coolest, newest, gadgets in your home. This is shoved in your face via radio, internet, television, newspaper, billboards, etc..

Add that to the reality that most folks face their own mortality during this time in life, often via the death/suffering of one or both parents, and they really see, first hand, what's waiting for them in the now not so distant future. Then tack on the additional stresses of family life since this is when kids are getting licenses, going to college, hitting their teenage years.

Is it any wonder?

Anonymous said...

Utterly ridiculous. No one commits suicide "because of the economy". The reasons are far more personal than that.

Anonymous said...

To final Anonymous: Have you ever been suicidally depressed? It's a complex situation and not entirely personal.

If the economy is doing badly and it contributes to your feeling hopeless about your debt or retirement savings or hope for the future, you may become convinced that you'll starve to death in your old age. Or that you'll become so in debt that you'll be homeless. So it's better just to get it over with now.

Maybe they don't specifically commit suicide because of the economy, but I could easily see it being a triggering factor.

(Example, when I was suicidally depressed, I was looking at cancer statistics and wondering if there was any point in going on because it felt like everyone died of cancer so I might as well just get it over now. My mother's terminal cancer played a role in my depression, but plain, impersonal statistics were actually a trigger for suicidal plans.)

Anonymous said...

I'd have to attribute a portion I these high suicide rates to the high divorce rates. Losing your house, half your income, paying child support, living in a "bachelor condo", never/rarely seeing your kids, vindictive spouse, losing most of your friends, etc., is more than enough reason to consider suicide. And from the other side, trying to raise a child on your own, losing half your income, relying on the schools to raise your kids, never finding another spouse due to the kids etc.

Anonymous said...

The thing I see happening more and more often, which I think leads to the rate, is the isolation of people. We move away from family, or are part of smaller families we may not get along with, we get divorced or someone close dies, or any of a dozen things send us off alone and before long, we end up living alone in communities full of transients, people faceless to us. If you're already down, because of personal situations, you don't strike up conversations, you don't engage, and you quickly become even more isolated and become faceless to your neighbors. And don't think just because someone is jovial at work there may not be a problem. The serious problem comes late at night, another evening alone, with a long line of the same stretching out ahead of you into the years. That's when the mental tapes play. That's when the self recrimination starts. That's when folks hold their worth up to view and find themselves, perhaps falsely but none the less real to themselves, lacking.

Anonymous said...

Somewhat surprisingly, suicide gets old as you get older -- for yourself and others. While you may have thought you were working through issues when you were younger -- you find that many of the same thoughts and feelings still haunt you in later life. Also, while you may have had friends or family who might be willing to lend a sympathetic ear when you were younger -- those avenues dry up or become overwhelmed -- so you feel more alone in dealing with these feelings as you get older. It might have been punk/goth cool to have self destructive feelings as a teenager -- kinda pathetic as a 45 year old. Also, while you may have had the energy to deal with the overwhelming feelings that lead to suicide when you were younger -- it's just too exhausting after a while. Outside forces can help exascerbate these feelings by draining energy that might otherwise be used to effective hold back the tsunami of depression, anxiety, and dread that cultivate suicidal urges. I thought I'd be past it by now -- but in many ways, it's more overwhelming than ever -- and you just get tired of putting up the daily fight.

Anonymous said...

The truth of the matter is that the middle-aged in our society are considered expendable. This is particularly true of middle-aged men.

Employers generally consider them to be 'used-up' and not worth further investment even though they still have much to offer. Employers would rather have young, inexperienced people they can use and abuse royally while paying them virtually nothing. They (and society) keep them on the hamster wheel by dangling images of material success before their faces, a level of success that is enjoyed by a tiny few - namely, the people at the top who are
running the whole sorry racket.

I would argue that depression is not the sole cause of midlife suicide. If depression comes into play at all, it does so as an entirely natural (and understandable) response to shitty treatment from others.

We talk a good line about preventing suicide and express puzzlement when people actually kill themselves. Yet the most we ever do (apart from studying the issue of suicide to death) is give people a little counselling and tell them, 'Here's some toxic drugs you can take to treat your problem. They will numb you to the point where you won't care about your original problems anymore. And even though we won't come out and actually say it, we think that you are entirely at fault for your problems and your response to them, you inadequate little lump of shit. See you in two weeks.'

I guarantee you that if you actually moved mountains to help people actually fix the problems that are driving them to kill themselves, you would see suicides decrease rapidly.

But the real reason why we don't go to that extent is that we don't really care if someone kills themselves. After all, it's just one less person competing with us for food, sex, and other things.