American Dream Not Working Out: 50-Somethings And Suicide

Suicide rates are going up. They have actually surpassed vehicle accidents as a leading cause of death. The change is not being driven by a shift in teen suicide rates or in young adults taking their own life. The change is in “50-somethings.” The number of middle-aged people who take their own lives has shot up. As CNN reports on the change between 1999 and 2010, “Suicides among people aged 50 to 59 years old specifically almost doubled during that time period.” And as NPR reported:

“For quite a while, the annual number of fatalities from auto accidents has been a kind of shorthand for health issues that are big and important. Starting in 2009, though, suicides surpassed deaths from crashes. In 2010, about 38,000 suicides compared with about 35,000 deaths from motor vehicle crashes. In a new analysis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention zeroed in on suicide data for middle-aged people, 35-64, because that’s where the increase in suicides has been the most dramatic. (Among younger and older people the rates didn’t change much.) The suicide rate for people 35-64 rose to 17.6 per 100,000 people in 2010 from 13.7 per 100,000 in 1999. That’s an increase of 28 percent.”

Part of the reason the rate is going up may be because the methods are changing. More people are attempting suicide by “suffocation”—specifically by hanging themselves. That method is much less likely to fail.

But there has to be more to it.  Trying to say why this is happening is admitted guesswork for the CDC as well as for the rest of us:

“The CDC researchers say that possible factors include the recent economic downturn, an increase in drug overdoses and a so-called cohort effect for baby boomers. As teens, baby boomers were more likely to commit suicide than teens of previous generations. It may be that the tendency followed them as they aged.”

I rather doubt the “baby boomers” explanation works by itself since, presumably, the people most likely to commit suicide already did so in their teens. If the survivors are now doing it as well, then I think we have to also posit some other input must be involved. The economic recession, while speculative, does sound like a reasonable factor.

But what does that mean?

Could it be that, by preaching about American prosperity as the sine qua non of America’s identity and superiority to the rest of the world, we have raised up a generation of Americans who have real trouble dealing with economic reality? We are not just “in a recession,” after all. We are within sight of the end of the Social Security Ponzi scheme and are seeing all the central banks of virtually every nation in the world go into an unprecedented public panic. We are seeing an amazing amount of money-printing going on all over the world, and it being openly extolled as the path to recovery. We are headed into a demographic “winter” where the elderly will outnumber the young. We are all watching a government that simply cannot envision existence without debt even when those debts look like they will soon overwhelm us.

In other words, we all know that we are not just in a recession—we are seeing the decline and fall of the world civilization that the US had tried to run. No one knows what is ahead, but they are getting an idea that the prosperity will be greatly diminished.

This is no excuse. We all have many blessing even in the midst of the crisis. But we’ve been trained not to count them as reasons to be grateful for our lives.