Over the past decade of devastating recession and feeble recovery, there has been a sharp rise in suicides of men aged fifty and over—almost 50 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 1999 to 2010, rates of suicide overall have gone up, but the steepest rise was for midlife men: those who used to be thought of as prime-age workers at the peak of their experience and ability. In that decade, the suicide rates for men aged fifty to fifty-four rose from 20.6 per 100,000 to 30.7 per 100,000.
Although thousands of individuals ended their lives in such terrible circumstances (6,733 men aged forty-five to forty-nine in 2010 alone), over the entire decade American media (including newspapers, magazines, and TV) reported only about thirty instances of the startling self-slaughter, plus sensational murder-suicides in which an unemployed person killed a spouse and children. A number of reports did, however, point to the high risk of unemployment and its consequences for this age group. A Baltimore man, aged fifty-nine, lost his job at the steel mill at Sparrows Point where he’d worked for thirty years when it closed after cycles of downsizing. He took a class to improve his prospects but couldn’t get into a retraining program. He felt he was a failure. According to a 2013 article in the Baltimore Sun, “His wife said, ‘The system is the failure,’ but she couldn’t convince him,” and he shot himself. A Petaluma man, aged fifty-five, the city’s chief building official, shot himself the week before his employment would have ended. A hedge-fund manager, aged fifty, killed himself soon after his fund lost 43 percent in the collapse of the stock market.
Even taken together, these reports provide little information about the deep sources of this public health emergency. Few describe people who were depressed before their economic troubles began. And most depressed people do not commit suicide. Many scholars believe that rising unemployment and its consequences—not prior mental health conditions—are responsible for a large share of excess deaths. (“Excess deaths” means those above what would have been expected if suicides had continued to rise at the same rate as before 2006.) One blogger, Susie Madrak, writes sarcastically to those who don’t get the economics of suicide for baby boomers, saying, “Yes, losing your job, your house, your life savings, your health insurance and any semblance of economic security might have something to do with it.”
Suicide rates are rising in other countries suffering economic downturns, including some countries with higher rates than ours. (Japan’s male suicide rate rose rapidly in the 1990s and again after 2009, as economic turmoil hastened the loss of the practice of “lifetime” jobs.) American rates are higher than those in Western Europe, a culturally comparable region, in part because our safety nets are weaker. According to a multinational team of public health, sociology, and suicide prevention experts writing in the respected British journal, The Lancet, for each percentage point rise in U.S. unemployment, there is an almost full 1 percent increase in U.S. suicides. The rate of unemployment between 2007 and 2010 increased 3.8 percent, up to 9.6 percent. Suicide is now the fourth leading cause of death among men in their middle years. According to a study published by Kerry L. Knox and Eric D. Caine in the American Journal of Public Health, it’s responsible for “greater premature mortality than other important and well-funded public health problems,” like heart disease. But “the substantial burden faced by this group has not been translated into a public health priority.”
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