Economy, Social Isolation May Be Driving Up Suicide Rates In Boomer Men

Sep 10, 2014
Originally published on September 10, 2014 6:29 pm

Suicide rates among middle-aged men in America have shown a sudden, distressing increase in the last decade. For our series on men, Shankar Vedantam talks with Audie Cornish about the trend and what some researchers think might be causing it.

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Here's a staggering statistic - nearly 40,000 Americans commit suicide every year, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. As part of our series exploring the lives of men we're going to look at the disproportionate impact that suicide has on men. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam joins us to talk about the research and, Shankar, to begin that 40,000 number is a huge number.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Is a staggering statistic, Audie. It's twice the number of Americans who die every year as a result of homicide and it's a burden that's born disproportionately by men. So nearly 4 in 5 people who commit suicide every year are men and there's disturbing evidence that the risk is on the rise for some groups. I was speaking with Julie Phillips, she's a sociologist at Rutgers University, shes been tracking suicide statistics. She told me there's been a disturbing trend in suicide rates among American men, especially men of a certain age. Here she is.

JULIE PHILLIPS: We saw a fairly sharp increase in suicide rates among men beginning in 1999. So for example among men aged 50 to 54 we saw an increase of almost 50 percent in their suicide rate.

CORNISH: 50 percent - Shankar, can you put this into some kind of context for us? Because it sounds like a dramatic change here.

VEDANTAM: It is a dramatic change, Audie, but suicide is a complicated phenomenon and here's why - on the one hand you could say the 50 percent increase is a 50 percent increase on a relatively rare phenomenon. So we shouldn't get overly alarmed. On the other hand you could argue that suicide is distressingly common, as you said 40,000 Americans die every year from suicide. So a dramatic increase in the suicide rates among this group is clearly worrisome. In the case of the middle-aged these are baby boomers, something is clearly going on. The increase is so dramatic that for the first time starting in 2004 suicide rates among the middle-age exceeded the suicide rate among the elderly. For a long time we've been worried about suicide rates among the elderly and to some extent among adolescents. Now seemingly out of nowhere people aged 45 to 65 have emerged as a group with the highest risk.

CORNISH: Well, it's a complicated issue. It's hard to know entirely what's at play, right? But I'm sure some people have wondered whether the economy has anything to do with it.

VEDANTAM: It probably is one factor, Audie, but it's probably only one of many factors. For one thing the number started rising in 1999, well before the recent recession. What we see initially is the increases among lesser educated, middle-aged men. Increasingly its effected better educated men as well. This could be related to the economy. It could be the poor were affected before the recent recession, but the recession has affected people who have college degrees as well - but it could be there lots of other factors at play. There are more and more people living on their own for example and there's some international data that suggest the dissolution of traditional family structures is correlated with increased suicide rates. Phillips herself thinks that social isolation in America might be playing some role here. Here she is again.

PHILLIPS: I also wonder, too, just about the ways in which we interact and how that has changed. The rise of social media, less face-to-face contact, entertainment has sort of become more private. You know, we watch a movie at home rather than going to a theater, for example. So, you know, that may also be contributing to feelings of social isolation that could also be producing some of these rising rates.

CORNISH: Shankar, talk about how researchers are actually trying to address the problem.

VEDANTAM: Well, Audie, I think the big question they're trying to address is whether we're seeing something specific to middle-aged men or a more general trend. If that has to do with middle-aged men in particular there happen to be lots of men in this age cohort. So a higher suicide rate coupled with lots more men in this age group could mean many more deaths in the coming years. On the other hand if this is being driven by larger social factors it could be that baby boomers are just the leading edge of a larger phenomenon and this could be that younger cohorts are going to start to see higher suicide rates as they start to age. In both cases researchers say the practical impact is to get folks access to mental health care and to try and reduce the levels of social isolation in America.

CORNISH: Shankra, thanks so much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: That's NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. You can follow him on Twitter @hiddenbrain. You can follow this program @npratc and me at @npraudie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.