More than today’s teenagers, more than the elderly, a struggling slice of the 76 million Americans born between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s are more and more prone to suicide. Some experts say that generation has always been more prone than others to self-destruction.
Now their vulnerability is alarming.
“We don’t automatically think of people of that age giving up,” said Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist at Crozer-Keystone Health System in Pennsylvania.
Beginning around 2008, as the nation’s economy slid into recession, the suicide rates of adults between ages 45 and 64 surpassed rates for people older than 85 — and far beyond suicide numbers for teens and young adults — and led all age brackets, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For people in their prime wage-earning years, history reveals “an association between suicide rates and economic expansion or contraction,” said the CDC’s Alex Crosby, an epidemiologist. Rates of suicide tend to rise in a financial downturn only for those in midlife, he said, “not for those over 65, and not for those under 25.”
Experts say job loss, home loss and flat-line incomes aren’t the only factors driving up suicides among baby boomers. Chronic diseases, alcohol abuse, the splintering of relationships and a reliance on painkillers also come into play.
Some contend a generation that started out with lofty goals always has been dogged by conditions that signal distress, posting through the decades unprecedented rates of depression, divorce and eating disorders.
Tracking suicide over the years is problematic because cases in the past are known to have been grossly underreported. But some studies suggest suicide was more common for even young adult boomers than it was for their parents at the same age.
“This particular group of people now in their middle years has had higher rates of suicide all the way through” their lives, said Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “The question becomes, is there something unique about this group or is it something about middle age right now?”
Rutgers University sociologist Julie Phillips has compared suicide rates among baby boomers to other age groups dating as far back as 1935. Her research found that the boomers have had “notably high” suicide rates across their life span, beginning in their teens.
Why that is, experts can only speculate.
If baby boomers grew up in an age of idealism, “the current reality may not be fitting what many of them wanted life to be or what they believed it should be,” said Sherry Danner, a clinical therapist and director of counseling at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood.
Their kids are grown and on their own. Their parents may have passed. Danner also cited “skyrocketing” divorce rates among boomers in the past decade.
Often, she said, those contemplating suicide feel alone and, if they have lost jobs, unable to contribute, or simply “a burden.”
She added: “When people ask what’s a key risk factor, I think one is perfectionism.”
The 45-to-64 age group in recent years has committed about 18 suicides for every 100,000 people within that demographic.
The overall national average in 2011, the latest year for which nationwide figures are available, stood at about 12 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people.
More recent data out of Missouri and Kansas reflect the grim trends among boomers. In 2012, Missouri suicides among people age 45 to 64 hovered above 20 per 100,000 people.
Kansas charted a stunning 31 percent jump in suicides overall in 2012, and more than a third were carried out by people between the ages of 45 and 64.
Locally and nationwide, the spikes in suicides among baby boomers are sharpest among white people, mostly male but also female.
In suburban Johnson County, where the number of suicides overall has tripled since 2007, clinical social worker Bill Art has seen a surge of desperate clients whose well-paying jobs came to a sudden end.
“Things really got worse when the economy tanked,” said Art, a suicide prevention advocate who serves on the Governor’s Behavioral Health Services Planning Council in Kansas. “If you’ve worked in the same career for 20, 30 years, your whole life is that. And when you lose the job, you may feel your whole life has ended.”
Yet no single factor dictates suicide rates, and when a person dies by suicide, family members often are at a loss to identify the reasons.
“Barry never got a confirmed diagnosis of depression,” said Allen’s wife of 16 years, Caroline Allen. “But he suffered from anxiety and had extreme mood swings” that would worsen when he abused alcohol and drugs.
When doctors would ask Barry Allen if he was depressed or considering suicide, he would say, “I have been in the past. I’m not now.”
Only after his suicide in 2010 would Caroline Allen recognize such comments as a tipoff to his desperation, both a denial and an admission.
There were other clues, she said. He suffered a head injury as a truck driver and went on disability. And despite the couple losing ownership of their home and filing for bankruptcy, Barry Allen would use credit cards to buy motorcycles and other expensive things, but he scrimped on spending on his health.
He’d ask his wife “Why did you marry me?” and gripe about being a burden to her.
She suffered a heart attack a month before he took his life. He told friends she was dying. He spiraled into heavy drinking.
“Even if I were able to stop my husband” the night the gun went off in the bedroom, Caroline Allen said, “at some point, I think now, it would have happened.”
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