Suicide Rises In White Middle-Aged Americans

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Teen suicide gets plenty of airtime, but a new U.S. study finds that middle-aged whites are an emerging high-risk group.

Before 1999, white middle-aged men were the least likely to kill themselves. However, for the period from 1999 to 2005, the rate for African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Native Americans declined or stayed stable even as middle-aged whites experienced a significant increase in suicides.

The total number of suicides in the United States between 1986 and 1999 decreased by 1.2 percent each year, but in 2000, this trend reversed. From that year through 2005, the rate of suicide among whites ages 40 to 64 increased about 3 percent from year to year.

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"Adolescent, young adult and elderly populations are on our radar, because completed suicides have traditionally been higher in elderly white men and because of high suicide attempt rates and potential years of life lost in young people," said study co-author Holly Wilcox. "We have some school-based and primary care prevention efforts in place to carefully monitor both ends of the age spectrum. I don't usually worry about the middle-aged group. It's alarming to me."

Wilcox is an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The study appears online and in the December issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

A December 2007 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified this age group as most likely to commit suicide, but the findings received little media attention, according to Eric Caine, co-director of the Center for the Study of Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester Medical Center. He said the latest study, which analyzed CDC data, adds important demographic information.

"It underscores that when you look at large population trends, you have to dig into the data and understand this doesn't affect all groups equally," Caine said. "I don't know if I would say that the fundamental epidemiology of suicide is changing; but this is a very important finding." Caine was not associated with the study.

Caine agreed with the study's recommendation to develop prevention programs for people in their middle years. While a tremendous amount of money goes toward school-based prevention programs, he said, "The rates really do increase substantially at 18 or 19, and those kids are out of school. And a lot of those programs go away when you're 18 — but you don't go away."

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