A decade of surveillance data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a troubling rise in suicide among American middle-aged men and women. In a report published Friday, the agency suggested the trend was at least partly due to the economic downturn.
Among Americans ages 35 to 64, suicides have increased nearly 30 percent since 1999. By 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, the suicide rate in this age group had increased to 17.6 deaths for every 100,000 in the population, up from 13.7 in 1999.
The rise was especially dramatic among particular age segments, assuming the surveillance data, which can be difficult to track, was accurate. Among men ages 50 to 54, data shows the suicide rate increased 49 percent between 1999 and 2010. Among women ages 60 to 64, the rate increased 60 percent. Overall, men are nearly four times more likely to commit suicide than women.
Suicides in every age group have increased slightly during the past decade, but the trend among the middle-aged has risen more sharply, especially since 2005. Lanny Berman, the executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, told me no empirical studies exist that would explain why these suicide rates have gone up, but the "best guess" is that the prolonged recession, with its accompanying economic hardships, played a central role.
"Nothing dramatic has changed for this age group that would better explain it," Berman said.
In 2009, the number of U.S. suicides for every age group surpassed the number of people killed in traffic accidents. Suicide was the 10th leading cause of death of 2010, when 38,364 Americans took their own lives.
Most attempts at what used to be called "self-murder" do not end in death. According to government statistics, for each suicide there are 25 failed attempts.
Despite a national strategy to prevent suicide, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, Berman said funding for such programs has been difficult to obtain: "Efforts sort of limp along, or are more evident on a local level."
The news of middle-aged suicides comes the same week legislators in the Vermont House voted in favor of assisted suicide. On Wednesday they approved a bill that would allow terminally ill patients to request a lethal dose of drugs. If approved by the state Senate and Gov. Peter Shumlin, the measure would make Vermont the fourth state to legalize assisted suicide, after Washington, Oregon, and Montana.