The recent Great Recession was hard on most everyone, but it appears it was especially difficult on baby boomers.
So much so that a rising number of middle-aged people in that generation resorted to suicide as the weight of economic problems overwhelmed them.
Since 2007, in fact, baby boomers have had the highest rate of suicide of any age group in the United States. Historically, people between the ages of 40 and 64 have had one of the lowest rates.
To complicate matters, baby boomers are now sliding into the over-65 demographic, an age group that historically has had one of the highest suicide rates.
Yes, It’s the Economy
A recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the Great Recession impacted middle-aged men harder than others, resulting in a sharp escalation of suicides since 2007. While rates remained stable for other groups, suicides among people aged 40 to 64 years have risen nearly 40 percent.
In addition, men were four times more likely than women to commit suicide, accounting for almost 78 percent of all 41,149 suicides in the United States in 2013.
Besides the number of suicides, methods have changed as well. Men most commonly use high mortality methods, such as firearms. However, recent trends, for example decreased gun ownership in the United States, show suffocation deaths (hanging among them) were more common among middle-aged men who experienced external circumstances that led to their deaths.
“It’s unclear as to why this is the case,” Julie Phillips, a sociology professor at Rutgers University who conducted the journal research with Katherine Hempstead, director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told Healthline. “Perhaps suicides with external circumstances present were less likely to have been planned and more impulsive in nature. Hanging is a method that is accessible to everyone and doesn’t require a great deal of planning.”
Since the beginning of the Great Recession, 8.8 million jobs were lost, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Middle-aged people were disproportionately affected in terms of lost property value, household finances, and lost retirement savings.
Twenty-seven percent of those aged 50 to 64 experienced reduction in salaries, higher than any other age group. Of those baby boomers who committed suicide from 2005 to 2010, 81 percent had prior mental health or substance abuse problems.
Presently, most suicide prevention efforts are focused on mental health and substance abuse issues, but the increase in self-inflicted deaths during the Great Recession suggests that we should focus awareness on economic issues and their role in suicides, Phillips said.
“Our findings suggest that awareness should be raised among human resource departments, employee assistance programs, state and local employment agencies, credit counselors — those who may come into contact with individuals suffering from personal economic crises,” she said. “Just as we provide crisis counseling during emergencies such as natural disasters, we should probably be doing the same in economic crises.”
Boomers Heading Into a High-Risk Age
In addition to current trends, baby boomers are also entering the 65-plus age range, which historically is the highest risk group for suicide.
Since 2000, the rate of suicide in the age group from 45 to 64 has risen steadily, according to statistics from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).
It reached 19.1 per 100,000 people in 2013. That was the highest rate of any age group.
However, right behind it were people 85 years and older at 18.6 per 100,000. The age group 65 to 84 was the third highest group, just ahead of the 25 to 44 age group. Both were about 16 per 100,000.
Although suicides for baby boomers could level out as the economy improves, experts say the fact this generation is entering older age is worrisome.
“While it is entirely possible that the present trend will taper off, it is imperative that we continue to monitor trends closely,” said Phillips. “The concern is that boomer men are aging into the age range that historically has exhibited the highest suicide rates.”
Lara Schuster Effland, a clinical therapist and vice president of residential services at Insight Behavioral Health Center in Chicago, said older adults face many prevailing issues that would cause one to become hopeless, isolated, and desperate.
“They lose friends on a continuous basis. Their heart and blood pressure medications [can] cause symptoms of major depression,” she said. She also said loss of support, loss of spouses, family members who move away, loss of money due to poor financial decisions, lack of savings or social security, and chronic illness, which are all things older adults may experience, can negatively impact their quality of life.
These life changes — whether loss of a job in middle age or turning 70 — aren’t only challenges, they are also opportunities to re-examine and redefine what people expect out of life.
“In terms of prevention, it is imperative to instill hope, meaning, and awakening into their lives, to see and experience friendship and closeness in new ways,” Schuster Effland said. “If friends and family are not available, it is best to find community centers to join, such as Silver Sneakers, prayer groups, meditation centers, volunteering, moving into a retirement community that encourages engagement, socializing, and new perspectives.”
She also gave this bottom line: “We need to find meaning and build a life worth living on a daily basis no matter what age we are.”
Building a network of support — including friends, loved ones, and medical professionals — is an important step in preventing suicide, said Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research for the AFSP.
“You can’t notice if someone has changed if you’re not connected to them,” she said. “You’re not going to make someone suicidal if you ask them if they’re thinking about suicide. You may help them get better.”
A Generation Facing Its Own Challenges
Harkavy-Friedman says baby boomers are a “sandwich generation” who are living longer, while caring for both their parents and their children.
“The recession has been a source of stress, whether they lost their jobs or not,” she told Healthline. “If they have other factors, these stressors can lead to depression and anxiety.”
When outside factors affect a person’s mental health, an important factor is a person’s ability to adapt to change. When a person enters a suicidal state, their thinking becomes less flexible. This can lead a person to believe they don’t have options, Harkavy-Friedman said.
“The truth is that there are options, and once they get through that, things will improve. The key is not to let things get to a point of escalation,” she said. “When people are suicidal, they’re rigid and not thinking clearly. It’s erroneously thought of as on purpose or a decision. It may be thought out, but it doesn’t come from a healthy mind. It’s important with mental health to know they are not choosing to be this way.”
Mental illness is, after all, physical problems within the brain, an organ that can experience fatigue and disease just like any other. And like other health issues, mental ones only get better with proper treatment.
“If you know you’re vulnerable to depression or suicide, you can get checked early, learn about it, and manage it,” Harkavy-Friedman said.
Honing in on Mental Health Treatments
Access to mental healthcare and substance-abuse counseling, along with the decreased stigma around mental health, is improving in the United States. The Affordable Care Act extends mental health benefits to 60 million Americans and covers services such as depression screenings.
But too often social isolation is a hindrance to getting help. The highest rates of suicide occur in states with the lowest population density, such as Montana, Alaska, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Idaho, Colorado, Nevada, and South Dakota.
Dr. Rene McGovern, a clinical psychology professor at the Arizona School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University, whose clinical work has focused on adult and geriatric health psychology, says the baby boomer generation has thankfully taken more charge of their health.
“I think they’re changing the healthcare system,” McGovern, a baby boomer herself, said. “We really need to put our focus on wellness and prevention.”
Learning to elicit help in a time of need is a skill everyone needs to learn, and social connections can help, she said. A person can gain new meaning out of life from even having a pet that is dependent on them.
“We need accountability,” McGovern said. “We need something to care for, even if it’s a plant.”
But before baby boomers can reach their elderly years, they must learn to get through troublesome life events, like job loss or economic problems.
“Resilience is gained through hardship. It’s how we learn. The longer you live, the downturn is a blip. It’s very easy to help a depressed person. You have to give them a reason to live,” McGovern said. “Once we move through that darkness, we live with intention.”
Along those lines, U.S. first lady Michelle Obama has called for a change that focuses on ending the stigma associated with mental health.
“At the root of this dilemma is the way we view mental health in this country. When it comes to mental health conditions, we often treat them differently from other diseases like cancer, diabetes or asthma. And that makes no sense,” she said at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. “Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s still an illness, and there should be no distinction.”
She announced the Campaign to Change Direction, a coalition that focuses on addressing the mental health needs of the nation.
More than 40 million Americans — or one in five adults — experience a diagnosable mental disorder each year.
“These conditions touch folks of every age, every background,” the first lady said. “They’re our kids, our grandparents, our friends, neighbors, co-workers, and yes, our veterans.”