Friday, May 3, 2013

To Join The Choir Invisible

Suicide Rates Rise Sharply:

Suicide rates among middle-aged Americans have risen sharply in the past decade, prompting concern that a generation of baby boomers who have faced years of economic worry and easy access to prescription painkillers may be particularly vulnerable to self-inflicted harm.

More people now die of suicide than in car accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which published the findings in Friday’s issue of its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. In 2010 there were 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle crashes and 38,364 suicides. 

Suicide has typically been viewed as a problem of teenagers and the elderly, and the surge in suicide rates among middle-aged Americans is surprising. 
Not sure why it's "surprising". Suicide rates generally increase as one goes up the age demographic ladder. There is sometimes a small decline in the 55-64 age group, but generally rates are lowest among teenagers and highest among the elderly (especially the oldest of the old, 85+).
From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people, up from 13.7. Although suicide rates are growing among both middle-aged men and women, far more men take their own lives. The suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000. 

The most pronounced increases were seen among men in their 50s, a group in which suicide rates jumped by nearly 50 percent, to about 30 per 100,000. For women, the largest increase was seen in those ages 60 to 64, among whom rates increased by nearly 60 percent, to 7.0 per 100,000.

Suicide rates can be difficult to interpret because of variations in the way local officials report causes of death. But C.D.C. and academic researchers said they were confident that the data documented an actual increase in deaths by suicide and not a statistical anomaly. While reporting of suicides is not always consistent around the country, the current numbers are, if anything, too low. 

“It’s vastly underreported,” said Julie Phillips, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University who has published research on rising suicide rates. “We know we’re not counting all suicides.” 
Exactly. Nice to see Jack Douglas' "The Social Meaning of Suicides" dissection of official statistics get brought out in a roundabout way. The suicide taboo, as Douglas pointed 45 years ago, still leads to the deliberate misclassification of deaths that are rather obviously suicide.
The reasons for suicide are often complex, and officials and researchers acknowledge that no one can explain with certainty what is behind the rise. But C.D.C. officials cited a number of possible explanations, including that as adolescents people in this generation also posted higher rates of suicide compared with other cohorts. 

“It is the baby boomer group where we see the highest rates of suicide,” said the C.D.C.’s deputy director, Ileana Arias. “There may be something about that group, and how they think about life issues and their life choices that may make a difference.” 

The rise in suicides may also stem from the economic downturn over the past decade. Historically, suicide rates rise during times of financial stress and economic setbacks. “The increase does coincide with a decrease in financial standing for a lot of families over the same time period,” Dr. Arias said. 
Couple of things: one, there is nothing in the historical data to suggest that suicide increases during economic downturns (see this previous post). If Durkheim is correct, and suicide increases when anomie increases, then perhaps higher unemployment could lead to higher normlessness and a jump in suicide. But it's not the financial condition as much as it is anomie in individuals already prone to normlessness. Not to mention, the suicide rates were rising before the Great Recession hit. This isn't to say a bad economy isn't correlated at all, but causation seems to difficult to prove.

Second, as much as it pains me to write this (given my aversion to Baby Boomers in general), I really don't think this is generational behavior either. From the long term vital statistics I've seen, there has not been an increase in suicidal behavior each time this generation moved into another phase of life. When they were teenagers in the 60's it didn't happen, nor in their 20's in the 70's, 30's in the 80's, and so on. Given the Boomer's obsession with youth and hanging on way past their expiration date (in terms of work, popular culture, etc.), it would seem to be quite the opposite.

So what could it be? A myriad of things, but the article notes an increase in poisonings, which I find interesting.
Although most suicides are still committed using firearms, officials said there was a marked increase in poisoning deaths, which include intentional overdoses of prescription drugs, and hangings. Poisoning deaths were up 24 percent over all during the 10-year period and hangings were up 81 percent. 
The easy availability of Big Pharma has certainly aided those who want to go out using more passive methods. Although you could also make the same argument about the availability of rope.

I think medical-related (health-related) suicides aren't being separated here either (persons who end their lives already sick with a terminal or debilitating condition). If there is an age-related component to the increase, it's the simple correlation that as morbidity increases, so too does mortality. People get sicker when they get older = people end their lives at a greater rate.

Technology is also playing a role in this as well. To the cyber-utopian's dismay, the research available today shows that despite all the interconnectedness of social media, facebook, twitter and so on, people are more socially isolated than ever. And as Durkheim warned 100 + years ago, when social isolation and marginalization increase, so too does suicide.

I'll have to dig through the report for more observations, but at first blush, the news is extremely disappointing. We've seen rates of suicide skyrocket among active duty and former members of the military since 2003, and now we can confirm that it is increasing exponentially in the general population as well.

When I wrote "The Never Ending War" three years ago, the post was ostensibly about suicide among returning veterans of war. But the never-ending battle to bring suicide out of the shadows of stigma and shame and educate the public about its prevalence and consequences continues, whether we are talking about veterans or just the general citizenry. And the more we conceptualize the problem as an individual phenomenon, and not the social and public health epidemic it has become, the more lives will continue to be lost.

We have wars on terror, drugs, immigration, crime, poverty, fat and every other inanimate object imaginable, is it time (forgive me) to launch a War on Suicide?

Cross Posted To: The Cranky Sociologists

No comments: