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Suicide up among middle-aged Americans, but why?

Published: Tuesday, May 14 2013 11:10 p.m. MDT

A report released this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the annual age-adjusted suicide rate for those 35 to 64 rose from 13.8 per 100,000 in 1999 to 16.7 in 2010. That's a 28.6 percent increase.

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Suicide rates for middle-aged American men and women have been climbing for more than a decade. But efforts to change the trend hinge in part on figuring out what's happening — and on that question, there's more speculation than consensus, experts agree.

A report released this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the annual age-adjusted suicide rate for those 35 to 64 rose from 13.8 per 100,000 in 1999 to 16.7 in 2010. That's a 28.6 percent increase.

Broken down by race, the numbers show a 65.2 percent increase among American Indian/Alaska natives and 40.4 percent among whites. By age, the greatest increases for men were during their 50s; for women, numbers rose most in their early to mid-60s. Geographically, suicide rates among the middle-aged climbed in all four regions and in 39 states.

Men have been and remain more likely to kill themselves than women. The CDC analysis said the three most common methods — firearm, suffocation and poisoning, usually by drug overdose — all increased.

No epidemic

What the numbers don't explain is the why, without which effective prevention is more challenging, experts agree. It's also easy to forget when faced with stark numbers that suicide is not common, though it occurs too often.

"There is no suicide epidemic," said Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (Save.org) and managing director of the National Council for Suicide Prevention. However, suicide increases among middle-aged Americans "clearly is a trend, and it's a disturbing trend."

The most important thing someone struggling needs to know, he added, is that both help and hope are available. People recover. "We are making progress. There are more suicide prevention programs. We have a national strategy for prevention, and research prioritization is almost finished."

What's happening?

There are a number of theories on what's driving the increase in suicide among the middle-aged. Reidenberg cites convergence of ongoing wars and the number of both active-duty soldiers and veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder with life in uncertain economic times as possible factors. "Though recessions themselves don't necessarily significantly impact suicide, unemployment does." High numbers of unemployed and others struggling financially are reason for concern, he said.

W. Bradford Wilcox wrote in The Atlantic that the increase may be owed, at least in part, to an erosion of traditional support systems. Wilcox directs the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and co-authored "Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives." He cited French sociologist Emile Durkeim's theories that men are more apt to kill themselves when they are "disconnected from society's core institutions," like marriage and religion, both now in decline in America.

Men are also vulnerable when their economic prospects falter, such as when unemployed. "So men are more likely to thrive and survive when they have a job, a wife and a community connection to a church or some other group that grounds their lives," Wilcox wrote.

College-educated men, he said, are more apt to lead socially supported, traditional lives, with jobs and wives, intact families and a church. They are less likely to kill themselves, compared to men who struggle in those areas.

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