Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Suicides by Baby Boomers Rise Sharply

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Suicides by Baby Boomers Rise Sharply

Article excerpt


As Dec. 24 ticked to a close in 2011, 65-year-old Michael Kelley walked into the dark of his backyard near Sacramento High School and hanged himself from a beam on the deck.

The Vietnam veteran, who struggled with bipolar disorder, post- traumatic stress and heart disease, died in the hospital on Christmas afternoon.

"I just relive it in my head," said his widow, Cathy Kelley, now 63, who was separated from her husband when he died. "I know the dark hole of being really low. How sad he must have felt walking out there in the dark.

"That's what I think of the most."

Although experts have long thought of midlife as a time of stability and emotional contentment, baby boomers are proving to be an unfortunate exception. Reversing a longtime demographic trend, midlife suicides are on the rise for the generation born between 1946 and 1964.

National figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that the suicide rate for people in this age group rose by almost 30 percent during the decade ending in 2010, even as the rate among people 85 and older -- traditionally, the demographic most likely to kill themselves -- dropped by 12 percent.

For people ages 45 to 54, the suicide rate was 19.6 per 100,000 in 2010. For people ages 55 to 64, it was 17.5 per 100,000. For the whole population, the national rate was 12.4 per 100,000 that year, according to the CDC.

"Historically, people in this middle-aged group have had flat rates of suicide," said Julie Phillips, the Rutgers University social demographer whose research helped identify the trend.

"After 50 to 60 years of data, to see this spike for this generation, it's time for us to figure out what's going on."

For now, researchers and suicide experts have more theories than answers as to why the middle years have become a danger zone for suicide.

"We don't really know, but the increase in this middle-aged group is thought to be in part because of the economy," said Paula Clayton, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention medical director.

"It's always been known that during a period of unemployment, there are higher rates of suicide. That was even clear in the 1920s."

With unemployment and a resulting lack of health benefits, she said, someone who has previously sought help for depression or other problems might forgo treatment or fail to fill his medications.

As Diane Sommers, executive director of the Suicide Prevention of Yolo County, Calif., crisis line, said: "With the instability in the economy and the housing market, we've noticed a lot of people calling the crisis line with anxiety, depression and sometimes suicidal ideation."

Ms. Phillips' research shows that the nationwide rise in midlife suicides began in 1999. The trend fluctuated for a few years but was well established by 2005, several years before the rocky economy began taking a financial and emotional toll on people of all ages. …

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