Suicide Among Baby Boomers Up Sharply - Know These Warning Signs to Help Prevent

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Suicide rates sharply up, especially for middle aged men
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Suicide rates among middle-aged Americans have risen sharply in the U.S. during the past decade, prompting concern that the recession and slowly recovering economy in recent years is negatively impacting baby boomers who may be stressed to the point of inflicting harm to themselves.

According to the CDC in its May 3, 2013 issue of its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, more people now die of suicide than they do in car accidents, which killed 33,687 Americans in 2012, compared to 38,364 who died from suicide.

The increase in middle-age suicide represents as shift away from a problem that has more often been associated with teens and seniors.

Indeed, the suicide rate for Americans between the ages of 35 and 64 increased by almost 30 percent during the years from 1999 to 2010. Specifically, the suicide rate for those in middle age jumped from 13.7 deaths per 100,000 people in 1999 to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2010.

For both men and women who are middle-aged, suicide rates continue to rise. However, significantly more men commit suicide than women, with the rate for men at 27.3 deaths per 100,000, compared to women at 8.1 deaths per 100,000.

The biggest increase in suicide was for men in their 50s, with 30 out of 100,000 in that age group killing themselves, up 50 percent. The biggest increase in women was seen in those between the ages of 60 and 64, with 7 out of 100,000 committing suicide for a rate increase of nearly 60 percent.

According to some experts, these new numbers for suicide rates are actually on the low side.

“It’s vastly underreported,” said Julie Phillips, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University who has also conducted research on rising suicide rates. “We know we’re not counting all suicides.”

Although researchers admit that no one can know for sure why these suicide rates have increased, the CDC says there are a number of possible explanations.

“It is the baby boomer group where we see the highest rates of suicide,” said CDC deputy director, Ileana Arias. “There may be something about that group, and how they think about life issues and their life choices that may make a difference.”

The suicide rate increase may also be due to the recession and slow recovery of the economy over the past decade. Historically, the rate of suicide typically increases during economically difficult times.

“The increase does coincide with a decrease in financial standing for a lot of families over the same time period,” Dr. Arias said.

The recent jump in suicides has also been attributed to the widespread availability of prescription narcotics, such as oxycodone, which can cause death if taken in large doses.

For most people who commit suicide, however, self-inflicted gunshots from firearms remains the weapon of choice. Suicide by poisoning is also on the rise, as are intentional overdoses of prescription drugs and hangings – with poisoning deaths up 24 percent in the last decade and hangings up 81 percent during that same time period.

For baby boomers – sometimes referred to as the “Sandwich Generation” – hitting middle age can be a time of increased stress due to caring for older children and aging parents at the same time. As Dr. Arias points out, suicide rates among this generation may be higher because they have life challenges and financial circumstances that are unique to them.

“Their lives are configured a little differently than it has been in the past for that age group,” Dr. 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.”

According to Phillips, changes in marriage, social isolation and family roles mean many of the pressures faced by baby boomers will continue in the next generation.

“The boomers had great expectations for what their life might look like, but I think perhaps it hasn’t panned out that way,” said Phillips. “All these conditions the boomers are facing, future cohorts are going to be facing many of these conditions as well.”

In the meantime, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) offers the following tips for helping to prevent suicide. Although, most apply primarily to school children and teens, the following may still apply to older adults, particularly as it pertains to knowing the warning signs and then taking action to help someone if you suspect they may be suicidal:

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Suicide Warning Signs

1. Suicide notes. These are a very real sign of danger and should be taken seriously.

2. Threats. Threats may be direct statements (“I want to die.” “I am going to kill myself”) or, unfortunately, indirect comments (“The world would be better without me”, “Nobody will miss me anyway”). Among teenagers, indirect clues could be offered through joking or through comments in school assignments, particularly creative writing or artwork. Younger children and those who may have some delays in their development may not be able to express their feelings in words, but may provide indirect clues in the form of acting-out, violent behavior, often with threatening or suicidal comments.

3. Previous attempts. If a child or teenager has attempted suicide in the past, there is a greater likelihood that he or she will try again. Be very observant of any friends who have tried suicide before.

4. Depression (helplessness/hopelessness). When symptoms of depression include strong thoughts of helplessness and hopelessness, a child or adolescent is possibly at greater risk for suicide. Watch out for behaviors or comments that indicate that your friend is feeling overwhelmed by sadness or pessimistic views of their future.

5. “Masked” depression. Sometimes risk-taking behaviors can include acts of aggression, gunplay, and alcohol/substance abuse. While your friend does not acted “depressed,” their behavior suggests that they are not concerned about their own safety.

6. Final arrangements. This behavior may take many forms. In adolescents, it might be giving away prized possessions such as jewelry, clothing, journals or pictures.

7. Efforts to hurt oneself. Self-injury behaviors are warning signs for young children as well as teenagers. Common self-destructive behaviors include running into traffic, jumping from heights, and scratching/cutting/marking the body.

8. Inability to concentrate or think clearly. Such problems may be reflected in classroom behavior, homework habits, academic performance, household chores, even conversation. If your friend starts skipping classes, getting poor grades, acting up in class, forgetting or poorly performing chores around the house or talking in a way that suggests they are having trouble concentrating, these might be signs of stress and risk for suicide.

9. Changes in physical habits and appearance. Changes include inability to sleep or sleeping all the time, sudden weight gain or loss, disinterest in appearance or hygiene.

10. Sudden changes in personality, friends, behaviors. Parents, teachers and friends are often the best observers of sudden changes in suicidal students. Changes can include withdrawing from friends and family, skipping school or classes, loss of involvement in activities that were once important, and avoiding friends.

11. Death and suicidal themes. These might appear in classroom drawings, work samples, journals or homework.

12. Plan/method/access. A suicidal child or adolescent may show an increased interest in guns and other weapons, may seem to have increased access to guns, pills, etc., and/or may talk about or hint at a suicide plan. The greater the planning, the greater the potential for suicide.

What Can You Do to Help a Friend?

1. Know the warning signs! Read over the list above and keep it in a safe place.

2. Do not be afraid to talk to your friends. Listen to their feelings. Make sure they know how important they are to you, but don’t believe you can keep them from hurting themselves on your own. Preventing suicide will require adult help.

3. Make no deals. Never keep secret a friend's suicidal plans or thoughts. You can not promise that you will not tell—you have to tell to save your friend!

4. Tell an adult. Talk to your parent, your friend's parent, your school’s psychologist or counselor-- a trusted adult. And don’t wait! Don’t be afraid that the adults will not believe you or take you seriously—keep talking until they listen! Even if you are not sure your friend is suicidal, talk to someone. It’s OK if you “jump the gun”—this is definitely the time to be safe and not sorry!

5. Ask if your school has a crisis team. Many schools (elementary, middle and high schools) have organized crisis teams, which include teachers, counselors, social workers, psychologists and principals. These teams help train all staff to recognize warning signs of suicide as well as how to help in a crisis situation. These teams can also help students understand warning signs of violence and suicide. If your school does not have a crisis team, ask your Student Council or faculty advisor to look into starting a team.

SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, May 3, 2013 / 62(17);321-325. National Association of School Psychologists (www.nasponline.org)

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