Since 2007, Baby Boomers have had the highest rate of suicide of any age group in the U.S., according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. While rates have remained stable for other age groups, suicides among people aged 40 to 64 years have risen nearly 40 percent.
What’s going on? Why is this happening?
The factors are many, but a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine revealed that the Great Recession impacted middle-aged men harder than others, resulting in a sharp spike in suicides since 2007. In fact, men were four times more likely than women to commit suicide, accounting for almost 78 percent of all 41,149 suicides in the U.S. in 2013.
Whether or not they have lost jobs, the recession has been stressful for Boomers. When other factors are present, such as illness, loss of spouses, loss of friends and family (to death or moving away), loss of money, these stressors can lead to depression and anxiety.
What to do?
In a blog for AARP, Steve Mencher , who had struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts himself, suggested five ways to stem boomer suicides. I paraphrase:
- End the stigma of mental health treatment: It’s true, seeking treatment for depression is still frowned upon, especially for men.
- Enforce “Parity”: The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 mandates that mental health issues be treated no differently than other kinds of sickness. But tell that to your insurance provider when they’re stingy with your expensive medication or therapy.
- Create a safety net:Depression is intimately tied to a sense of isolation. Create supportive havens where people, men especially, feel safe to share their feelings
- Advocate for true gender equity, with men and women sharing equal responsibility for supporting their families and each other.
- Increase support for veterans: The majority of veterans who commit suicide are over 50. They are not getting the help they need.
I recently discussed suicide and prevention with John Dornheim, a consultant with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), on an episode of The Aging Boomers.
Early detection is key to prevention, he said, and communication is key to detection.
“It’s a common misconception that you shouldn’t ask a depressed person about suicide because it will make them suicidal,” he said. Wrong. In fact, asking is more likely to provide relief. And if it doesn’t, it can open the door for you to help.
“If you suspect someone is suicidal, it is so important to bring it up to them and see their reaction,” Dornheim said. “You might say, ‘Okay, you've been thinking about it, well, do you have a plan? What is your plan? Do you have a method? Do you have a place where you're going to do this?’ The more they answer yes and give you distinct information, the more worried you should be and the more you need to get them to a safe place. It's important to ask those questions.”
Another myth, Dornheim said, “is that if someone has attempted suicide before, they probably won’t try it again. A previous attempt is one of the top warning signs to look for in somebody who seems suicidal.”
To listen to my interview with John Dornheim of NAMI, click here.