Middle-Age Suicide

Middle age is reportedly the happiest time of life for most Americans. So, why are middle-aged men at such high risk for suicide?

I belong to a group that has an unusually high rate of dying by suicide. No, I don’t belong to a cell of terrorists in training. I’m not a soldier or veteran with multiple deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan. I’m not a prison or jail inmate. And I’m not a doctor (physicians have easy access to drugs and understand their lethality). What high-risk group do I belong to? I am a middle-aged white man.

Men have long had higher rates of suicide than women, and whites in the United States are more likely to kill themselves than are African, Hispanic, or Asian Americans. But it’s only in recent years that the middle-aged have overtaken older people as the ones most likely to die by suicide.

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.

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“Women seek help—men die.” This quote from a 1990 medical journal article is an overgeneralization, of course. There are plenty of women who don’t seek help for their emotional distress. After all, women in the United States are three times more likely to attempt suicide than men. But “men tend to hold their own counsel,” says psychiatrist Yeates Conwell, co-director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester. “They often don’t build supportive networks that allow them to share their concerns with others.”

Men are also more likely to drink heavily when feeling distraught, and to reach for guns in order to kill themselves. Nearly sixty percent of suicides among males occur by firearms, while the most common method among women is overdose/poisoning. Guns tend to be more lethal than pills, and this helps explain why there are four male suicides for every female suicide. (Some ninety percent of all people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental illness or substance use disorder.)

There’s even evidence that men are more likely than women to feel there is a stigma attached to a “failed” suicide attempt. So men may use more lethal methods to avoid being seen as unmanly—even as they’re planning their own death.

Changes in gender roles may also be affecting men, suggests Sally Spencer-Thomas, executive director of the Colorado-based Carson J Spencer Foundation, whose Working Minds program promotes suicide prevention in the workplace. As more women become family breadwinners and attain leadership positions once denied them, Spencer-Thomas says that “more men are asking themselves, ‘Am I a provider or not? Am I a leader or not?’ Their sense of purpose may become unclear.”

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Whites could use a little faith. Whites are more than twice as likely to die by suicide as blacks, although whites in general are better off economically. In fact, the suicide rate for white men aged forty-five to fifty-four (29.3 per 100,000) is 14 times greater than the rate for black women of the same age (2.1 per 100,000). Some researchers suggest that blacks may be less prone to suicide because they are more religious. They tend to outpace whites in the United States on measures such as frequency of church attendance and prayer, closeness to God, and self-ratings of spirituality. Being part of a church community can also be a powerful source of social support, another protective factor.

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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.

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Lowering risk. When I asked these experts for practical advice on what middle-aged white men can do to reduce their risk of suicide, they stressed that you should see your doctor if you suspect you’re suffering from depression or another mental health problem. While depression often includes feeling sad or losing interest in things that typically give you pleasure, it can also be expressed in other ways: sleep problems, frequent headaches or stomach pain, risk taking (such as reckless driving and casual sex), and anger. If you are suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

The experts also advise all men to develop support networks, and to stay engaged with family and friends. “Do everything you can to resist the urge to isolate,” says Phillip Smith, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Rochester. Reaching out can feel uncomfortable, he admits. But sharing your worries can make you feel less alone, and other people may offer valuable perspectives on what you’re going through.

Dr. Conwell also encourages men to take good care of themselves. That means eating right, being physically active, managing your stress levels, getting enough sleep, and not drinking too much alcohol.

And don’t forget to look out for each other, says Spencer-Thomas. Notice if a family member, friend, or co-worker doesn’t seem himself, and ask him how he’s doing. Remind him that depression is a treatable medical condition, not a sign of weakness. If he’s talking about death and suicide, and you suspect that he might harm himself, offer to take him to the emergency room or call 911.

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A personal perspective. I am no stranger to depression, as it has affected me to varying degrees since my teens. It took me a long time to get help—first from psychotherapy, then medication, and now both. The idea of suicide once had a seductive pull on me, but it has lost its power.

Although suicide used to seem like a way out of my struggles, now I can see more options to get through them. I’ve also met several people who have lost loved ones to suicide, and now I firmly believe that any option is better than killing myself.

These survivors of suicide loss have been through a veritable hell of grief and guilt (“What could I have done to prevent this?”). If you ever get to the point that you think you’ll be doing others a favor by doing yourself in, you are wrong.

To me, the essence of suicidal thinking is a kind of tunnel vision in which self-annihilation seems like the only solution to emotional pain. Perhaps this is why I’ve found comfort in environments that provide a sense of spaciousness and openness. Sitting beneath the vaulted ceiling of my church, or walking though the woods and coming upon a sunlit clearing, seems to take me out of my head and my concerns.

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl describes a moment not long after he had been liberated from a Nazi concentration camp. He is walking through the countryside past flowering meadows. Larks rise to the sky and sing joyously. He stops, looks around, and then drops to his knees. Frankl, an Austrian Jew, repeats to himself a line from Psalm 118: “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.”

I think it’s possible for anyone to experience this freedom of space, regardless of religious affiliation or spiritual beliefs. And I share Frankl’s sense of gratitude. I find myself released from many of the constraints that depression once placed on me and from the lure of suicidal thoughts, and I can see possibilities all around me.

—Dan Fields

Thanks to Elana Premack Sandler at the Suicide Prevention Resource Center for help with statistics.

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Comments

  1. I just stumbled on this site and WOW! All of you, you are saying you are worth nothing and that is simply not true. The ability to write so well of your pain, that is something. I do believe in
    God and if God made us, he wants us to live to our fullest potential.I think with men they would interpret this to mean a hi paying and successful job that is recession proof.
    You are not what you do for a living. That is only a result of how fully you have been able to live. Depression, by the very nature of the actual changes it makes in chemistry, MAKES YOU BELIEVE THAT ALL IS HOPELESS, THERE IS NO WAY OUT, NO ONE CARES-you are being fooled by your own body.
    Get help for the depression and then address the areas in your life that need it.Be grateful every day even if your family and friends do not come thru-help someone else with their problems-get out and meet others in whatever way you want to, exercise every day.
    I hope you do these things as it will make it better. Is it going to make you George Clooney or rich? No. It will make you proud to be who you are, it will help you really accept how things are for you so you can then move on and make it better. We all have a purpose here, we are all valued and loved. No, not by all the media, or the very wealthy(Who have cheated us) but that is not real. It’s TV. Thos are people that do not know you. The people who come into your life when you reach out for help are REAL. The neighbor you start to give a little wave to and nod, the store clerk you thank for being so efficient. It is when we come out of ourselves that we can build lives that are truly meaningful.
    This is a tried and true method of regaining your sense of self, i hope you give it a try.

  2. So a little change in perspective and a little talking is going to help.
    Bean, I am not saying it does not work for people like you.
    But some of us are calling foul.
    We are tired of dealing with and accepting things.
    We are not teenagers and basically we have tried to do things your way.
    And we keep getting dust kicked in our faces.

    The young lady that just posted that she is completely alone? You think she has not tried to connect? But nobody is there for her truly.

    Some of refuse to follow the delusion any longer. So we can be someone’s financial support, or mistreated employee, or cheated upon spouse, or legally castrated father, or lonely brother, or sister (Female 40).

    We are just tired. And no change is going to change our situations.

  3. It is the disease of depression. Your minds’ chemicals are messing with you. If you tried antidepressants for a good while-say, 3 months and you still feel as you do, of course you have free will.
    I don’t think you will, I hope you are brave enough and not to far gone to give it a try.

  4. I disagree. There are some people who are actually depressed.
    My question to you is why is someone automatically labeled mentally ill because they are tired of living for whatever reason?
    From a rational standpoint life has no meaning except that which people attach to it. And survival instinct is only to preserve the species. Since humanity is in no danger of extinction my birth nor my life is actually necessary.

    So I should replace my supposedly “messed up” brain chemicals with pharmaceutical drugs that are akin to a subtle for of mind control to cling to a life that is essentially pointless in the grand scheme of things.

    Which has always struck me as interesting because if people use drugs or alcohol to stave off certain”depressive” feelings that is frowned upon and illegal(drugs). Regardless of the side effects of many of those antidepressants one of which is actually promoting thoughts of suicide in the person taking them.

    As far as living for other people, that idea does not hold water fully either. In my experience and observation of a few other individuals who always put others first in many cases one gets betrayed or bitten on the hand for extending kindness.

    Bean, I am not trying to change your mind and the minds of others like you on how you view and perceive life.
    But it is totally unfair that the system wants to try everything possible to stop a rational person from ending their life if they are not satisfied. As if a drug addled existence subject to the judgement of psychologists is actually something everyone wants.

    This is supposed to be a free country. And since I am not harming anyone with my suicide, I should be allowed to die in peace. And if one mentions grieving relatives and friends it would be no different than if I died in a plane crash or car accident.

  5. Some of us have tried therapy and every anti-depressent you can think of only to continue to feel pain. In my personal opinion, no anti-depressant is going to make someone who is feeling severe lonliness feel better. Everyone wants to have a social connection and someone to enjoy their life with. If they lack this and cannot change things, there is nothing that can help them “feel happy”. Believe me, I have tried all anti-depressants that exist and have been in therapy for years because of my lonliness and inability to find happiness in my life.

  6. Suicide is man’s way of telling God, ‘You can’t fire me – I quit.’
    Bill Maher
    I once read another similar quote but cannot find it now. It went something like this;
    Suicide is deciding to resign rather than waiting to be fired (sacked or terminated) by God.
    Personally, I’m divorced, alone, lonely, depressed, middle aged, redundant, jobless, homeless and broke to name just a few.

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