Baby boomers and suicide: The surprising trend
At the age of 48, my brother parked his truck on the side of the Alaska Highway and walked into the river.
By Don Gillmor, Toronto Star, February 8, 2013
It used to be that mid-life was a statistical lull in the suicide world. Youth (15-24) are at risk, as are seniors (75 and up). With both groups, alienation can be a factor. Adolescence is confusion and doubt and finding a role for yourself. The elderly face some of the same issues: their utility diminished, their health suspect, their thoughts unreliable. But between these two troubled poles, we have tended to be relatively content, or at least better-equipped to deal with adversity, and suicide statistics were both low and stable. Until recently there weren’t many academic studies of middle-aged suicide because there were so few of them.
But that has suddenly changed. In Canada in 2006, the 40-49 age group accounted for more suicides than high-risk youth and seniors put together; 887 baby boomers killed themselves. By contrast, the figure for the traditionally higher-risk 15-24 age group was 417; the 75-84 age group was 175. Since 1999, baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) have been killing themselves at increasing rates. In our 40s and 50s, historically a time of social integration, and a relative oasis of financial and family stability, we are increasingly in despair. Why are boomers killing themselves in such numbers?
In September 2010, Rutgers sociologist Julie Phillips and three colleagues published a paper titled “Understanding Recent Changes in Suicide Rates Among the Middle-aged: Period or Cohort Effects?” In it they noted a dramatic rise in suicide among middle-aged Americans. Phillips writes that this rise could be the result of “period effect” — historical or cultural events that affect everyone, but have a disproportionate effect on certain groups. This was seen in the Great Crash of 1929, for example. But there wasn’t anything cataclysmic in the period Phillips examined (1999-2005). The subprime crisis of 2008 wasn’t reflected in her study because those numbers weren’t yet available.
The other larger cause, from a sociological standpoint, is “cohort effect.” Because boomers are the largest cohort of the century, there is greater competition for limited resources. The biggest increase in suicide was among those who were unmarried and without a college degree, suggesting that competition for economic resources was taking a toll on those with less education, and without the economic and moral support of a partner. There are also higher rates of depression among boomers, although this could be due in part to greater awareness and more frequent diagnoses than in the more clenched and stoic generation that preceded us. And, of course, there are high rates of substance abuse, an area where we are the generational champions.
More than any generation before us, we have held to the spectre of youth: physically, surgically, musically, sexually. One of the benefits of youth is living in the moment. With middle age comes the burden of both past and future.
Born just four years before the official start of the baby-boomers' bubble, I have had my own brushes with suicide, in my own familiy, and in my professional life. And they most often were compounded by struggles for which there seemed to be no reasonable option.
A father who struggled with a dominatrix spouse, without ever finding his voice, a student whose perspective on the world could not accommodate the levels of violence, abuse and vengeance that he witnessed all around him, a father of a classmate whose life, on the outside seemed the picture of calm and peaceful bliss with four children, a supportive and beautiful wife, a steady and reliable job, and a host of fair-weather-friends and associataes, a young single man whose life had absorbed blows of health, accident and aloneness, a pharmacist whose business was both profitable and socially integrated into the small town on whose main street it was located, a math teacher, father of four, whose professional and personal intensity and ambition for perfection could not and would not find respect, although his 'presentation' was of affability, youth and an accomplished musicianship, a middle-aged woman, married to a doctor whose life never measured up to her own high standards of accomplishment and capability, a mid-thirties mine worker whose contempt for the rich for whom he believed he was detonating explosives and extracting coal, to provide for their opulent amenities, overwhelmed his capacity to integrate other perceptive options, a political figure who, after decades of both power and respect, suffered a stroke, a divorce and the humiliation of what he perceived as complete uselessness, a middle-aged man whose early life had accumulated too many insults, offenses from the insensitivity of others, without recourse to adequate professional support, who drove his truck into a tree....a divorced father of adolescents whose father had taken his life, and whose mother had "gifted" him with the rifle his father had used as a "Christmas present" and then requested he provide her with medications to take her own life, just prior to his rejection from a social agency whose leadership he sought....an intense, life-loving and sharing medical doctor whose life was striken by a debilitating stroke, rendering him useless, in his eyes, to his calling and the hundreds, if not thousands, of reported "accidents" the origin of which will never be determined because we simply do not wish to know, to uncover how we might be implicated, through acts of either omission or commission in the lives of those who could find no other solace but "ending it"...
The problem with the "sociological" study of suicide is that it groups cohorts, without paying attention to the fine print of each individual's background, schooling, parenting, religious affiliation, if any, work history, relationship history, relationship to substances that abuse the body, mind and spirit and thereby glosses over many of the important details of the daily existence that constitute the biography of each of us. And, of course, one of the reasons why such an approach is taken (witness the French researcher, Durkheim) is that it sanitizes an unpalatable event, and the drama that surrounds the event, to the point at which we can begin to detach, and thereby cope, with the tragedy.
Furthermore, for so long, the subject has been locked in the vaults of the coroners' offices, while suffering families have found it either too painful to discuss or too macabre a public story for their grieving and guilty hearts. Given the west's "christian" perspective on the "evil" of suicide, even the criminality (only removed in Canada, in 1977) based primarily on the church's view of the "sanctity of life", and the various forms of demonization that our culture has attached to the event, and the many and nuanced methods of reporting, both publicly and privately, inserting words like "suddenly" or "at a young age" or "prematurely" or "before his time" into the obituaries of those who took their own lives, we have not generated a climate of open discussion, open grieving and open sharing of the guilt and the pain that remain following the willful termination of a life. We have all been complicit in a kind of protective cover-up of what we all know is a kind of death that is available to each of us, that both threatens and challenges us to face its reality, and to grope into the dark for shards of understanding, never fully accessible, but never unsought in our groping with our own mystery and the mystery that accompanies each of us on our too solitary journey.
While the numbers of boomer suicides has apparently risen quite dramatically, any attempt to explain the rise would have to include the kind of eroding of the relative importance attached to the life of any individual, and the degree to which that social entropy has accompanied the lifeline of those of us who knew something quite different in our youth. We were not merely consuming digits, or performing functions, stripped of our biographies, our identities, and left naked as merely the means to someone else's ends in the first two decades of our lives. (Kant reminds us not to become the means to another's ends!) We were accustomed to being known, not only for our scores on college admission tests, or our years of employment in a specific factory, or store or office or profession, or our golf handicap, or our championships in the provincial (athletic, dramatic, musical, science) competitions. We had and were perceived to have something called our 'character' our way of being, our way of speaking and looking and interacting, of walking and of combing our hair, and our choice of attire, even our choices of subjects in high school. We were liked, or not, for many and sundry reasons, by many and sundry others some of whom made deep impressions on our hearts, our minds and, without our conscious awareness, our world views. We watched as our classmates performed in the local gym or at the local arena, or in the local auditorium, or on the water in regattas, and found role models whose style and dedication inspired something deep inside of us, not some "idol" on a screen whose personal life is sold for the profit of his/her managers.
We have and are, collectively, generating a culture whose "soil" will not hold and nourish our "seeds" in the manner in which we were held and nourished in our youth. We sanitize our water-cooler conversations into social policy alternatives, rather than on our detailed appreciation of the gifts and the complexities of each other, fearing a "politically uncorrect" invasion into the privacy of each other's life. We refuse to engage in "gossip" at least as part of our public face, while nevertheless indulging in the various mis-steps of others we see around us, while interpreting those mis-steps as "failures of character" whose characters we have helped to shape, mold and also destroy although it was their hands that did the deed, not our's so we have no official or legal responsibility.
It has too often been said that if we treated each other half as well, as generously, and as sensitively as we do for the first three-to-six months of life, and for the last three-to-six months of life, we would have a very different society, culture and set of numbers to attempt to unpack.