Dan Fields, freelance health writer and former editor in chief of Dr. Andrew Weil’s Self-Healing newsletter, recently sent me a link to his piece for a cool new online publication called “The Good Men Project Magazine.” I was especially intrigued by his exploration of midlife suicide and why the rate is highest among any age group. You can get to his fascinating piece by following this link. I have excerpted a few paragraphs below:
In 2007 (the latest year for which statistics are available), people aged forty-five to fifty-four had the highest suicide rate of any age group: 17.7 per 100,000. (The national average was 11.5 per 100,000.) And the rate for fifty-five to sixty-four-year-olds showed the greatest increase from the previous year.
Researchers don’t yet know why midlifers are becoming more vulnerable to suicide, especially since studies have found that middle age is generally the happiest time of life for most Americans. As a forty-five-year-old white guy, I was curious to know what makes my demographic group so self-destructive. After talking with experts, here’s what I learned….
Midlife can be a minefield. For many people, the peak earning years of midlife offer a sense of competence and mastery. But for others, the middle years may be times of disillusionment and regret about stalled careers and stale marriages. This time of life can also be filled with anxieties about mounting debt, while putting kids through school and caring for aging parents. Plus, men at midlife discover that their own bodies aren’t what they used to be. As natural medicine expert Andrew Weil, M.D., writes, “The man at fifty or sixty looks at his sagging muscles, thinning hairline, bigger belly, and uncooperative penis and wonders, ‘Whose body is this?'”
But these challenges aren’t new to midlife. What could account for the rising suicide rates? (Remember, the latest statistics are for 2007, before the economic meltdown of 2008 brought widespread job cuts and home foreclosures.) Dr. Conwell says that even before the recession, concerns about the stability of employment could have set the stage for other factors–such as substance misuse, more difficult access to health care, and less-stable social support–that can increase the risk of suicide.
Sally Spencer-Thomas also suspects that fraying social ties may play a role. She notes a 2006 study showing that Americans’ circle of confidants shrank by one-third in the previous two decades. And the number of people who said they have no one with whom to discuss important matters more than doubled in that time, to nearly twenty-five percent.
Thomas Joiner, a psychologist at Florida State University and author of Myths about Suicide (2010), speculates that the mainstreaming of gore may even be having an effect. When the people now in their mid-40s were in their teens (from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s), they were starting to get exposed to gory movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th. He believes that one of the most important factors that contributes to suicide is a “learned fearlessness” about physical pain, physical injury, and death. (Other factors, he says, include the idea that you are a burden on other people, and the feeling that you are hopelessly alienated from them.) As people develop an increasing tolerance to gore, perhaps they are more likely–when in extreme distress–to do themselves harm.
“I hope that I’m wrong about this,” says Joiner. “If it’s true, that’s ominous.” Children and teens today are exposed to far more graphic violence in movies and computer games than were their counterparts of thirty years ago.
Other theories about why midlife suicide rates are on the rise include easier access to guns and prescription drugs, and a potentially higher incidence of depression among baby boomers.