Middle aged women are at increased risk for suicide

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture
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A new report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows that middle aged women are at greater risk for suicide than other women. It is a surprising finding in a culture that recognizes the risk for teens and the elderly. What is fueling the midlife spike?

The new report shows a 49 percent increase in emergency department visits for drug-related suicide attempts for women aged 50 and older. And women aged 40-69 are more at risk of killing themselves than other women, according to new research on age-specific suicide rates between 1998 and 2007. In 2007, this age group made up 60 percent of the 7,328 suicides reported among women.

Several factors may be at play. For one, women over fifty represent the baby boomer generation, which experienced more drug use and abuse than any prior generation. Substance abuse is an important risk factor for suicide. Women fifty and over are also more frequent consumers of prescription medication because of sleep and pain disorders, which become increasingly common with pain. Perimenopausal women also experience sometimes dramatic hormonal fluctuations which can precipitate mood disorders such as depression, or insomnia, which can also trigger a mental health disorder.

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Aside from these organically mediated precipitators, it is equally important to consider loneliness and isolation. Women of this age group are divorced, separated or single at unprecedented rates, and they frequently have no human contacts outside of work and the Internet, points out Ellyn Kaschak, Ph.D., emeritus professor of psychology at San Jose State University and the editor of the journal Women & Therapy. Frequently, the wide social safety net and companionship of peers and family members is entirely absent. Since human psychology evolved in an essentially tribal environment, we are ill-adapted to withstand the social alienation of our modern, urban mass culture.

Even so, why would men not be similarly afflicted? Women face a set of challenges that may not affect men nearly to the extent that it does women. Women may, for example, be facing the proverbial empty nest without the alternative ego supports that come from a challenging career in full bloom, as often happens for men of this age group.

Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, a psychologist and licensed clinical social worker in Sarasota, Fla., also says that middle-aged women may be more aware of their mortality. She does not explain why this would be so, but I can conjecture that it may be related to women being confronted with their biological limitations to procreate. While they may not have had children, the stark fact of this capacity coming to an irreversible close confronts women with the passage of time and the aging process in an unambiguous way.

Dr. Wish has also found a startling increase in suicide attempts with women ages 45 to 54 through her online surveys, lectures and focus groups.

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