Suicides Soar in Past Decade
Roberta McLauglin photographs an exhibit of shoes last May, in remembrance of people who have jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Suicide -Annual Total Surpasses Car-Crash Deaths; Rate Among Middle-Aged Is Cited
The number of suicides in a year rose 31% to 38,364 in 2010 from 29,181 in 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For adults aged 35 to 64, the group most responsible for the increase, suicide is now the fourth most common cause of death behind cancer, heart disease and unintentional injury such as drowning. That is up from the eighth spot in 1999.
Suicide rates for youth and elderly remained steady. But suicide rates for working adults were double that of the other demographics, with people in their 50s showing the highest numbers. That is troubling to public health officials, since most of the resources targeted at preventing suicide have traditionally been earmarked for students and senior citizens.
Downturns in the economy have been correlated with rises in suicides, according to CDC research. As people lose their jobs or work part-time, many struggle to make ends meet and go without health insurance, adding to stress and turmoil in households. States reduce mental-health services to balance budgets.
This last decade has been particularly punishing, as the worst recession in decades wiped out stock-market wealth, home equity, college savings and retirement funds for many workers—in addition to the heavy job layoffs.
For suicides among the middle-aged, men outnumber women by a 4-to-1 ratio, said Richard McKeon, head of the suicide-prevention division of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. That underscores a greater reluctance among men, particularly those of working age, to seek therapy, as well as the challenges the health-care system has in reaching them.
Sally Spencer-Thomas said her brother, Carson J. Spencer, was a "man's man." In his mid-30s, Carson was tall, athletic and CEO of an insurance company. But her brother, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a teenager, struggled to accept that his bouts with a mental disease were normal—and common, Ms. Thomas said.
On Dec. 7, 2004, Carson took his own life after struggling with mania and months of erratic spending and behavior. He spent all the money he had in his bank account, Ms. Thomas said.
"My brother struggled with what it meant to be a man living with his disease," said Ms. Thomas, who founded a group dedicated to preventing suicides among working men in 2005. "That is a huge reason why men of working age are dying."
For decades, suicide-prevention resources were directed at students and the elderly. In about a dozen states, school staff members are required to undergo annual training for suicide prevention, looking for potential signs of at-risk teenagers. The approach with seniors centered on diagnosing and treating depression. As resources went to youth and seniors, however, the recent recession challenged middle-aged adults.
"The safety net for working adults has a lot of big holes in it," said David Litts, executive secretary of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, a public-private partnership seeking to reduce suicide deaths.
As a result, the suicide growth among middle-age adults has gone largely undetected.
"It's been a creeping erosion that's been difficult to see," said Eric D. Caine, director of the Injury Control Research Center for Suicide Prevention, a CDC-funded team, and a leading expert on suicide deaths.
In the Obama administration's proposed budget next year, an extra $2 million is available to target demographics—like working-age adults—who aren't being helped, said Mr. McKeon.
In 2010, suicides for all ages totaled 38,364, the CDC said. That compares with 33,687 motor vehicle deaths in the same year.
Corrections & Amplifications
The Carson J Spencer Foundation was established in 2005. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the foundation was established in 2006. The earlier version also incorrectly referred to Carson J. Spencer on second reference as "Mr. Carson."
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