Men have long had higher rates of suicide than women, and whites in the United States are more likely to kill themselves than are African, Hispanic, or Asian Americans. But it’s only in recent years that the middle-aged have overtaken older people as the ones most likely to die by suicide.
In 2007 (the latest year for which statistics are available), people aged forty-five to fifty-four had the highest suicide rate of any age group: 17.7 per 100,000. (The national average was 11.5 per 100,000.) And the rate for fifty-five to sixty-four-year-olds showed the greatest increase from the previous year.
Researchers don’t yet know why midlifers are becoming more vulnerable to suicide, especially since studies have found that middle age is generally the happiest time of life for most Americans. As a forty-five-year-old white guy, I was curious to know what makes my demographic group so self-destructive. After talking with experts, here’s what I learned.
“Women seek help—men die.” This quote from a 1990 medical journal article is an overgeneralization, of course. There are plenty of women who don’t seek help for their emotional distress. After all, women in the United States are three times more likely to attempt suicide than men. But “men tend to hold their own counsel,” says psychiatrist Yeates Conwell, co-director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester. “They often don’t build supportive networks that allow them to share their concerns with others.”
Men are also more likely to drink heavily when feeling distraught, and to reach for guns in order to kill themselves. Nearly sixty percent of suicides among males occur by firearms, while the most common method among women is overdose/poisoning. Guns tend to be more lethal than pills, and this helps explain why there are four male suicides for every female suicide. (Some ninety percent of all people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental illness or substance use disorder.)…
Whites could use a little faith.Whites are more than twice as likely to die by suicide as blacks, although whites in general are better off economically. In fact, the suicide rate for white men aged forty-five to fifty-four (29.3 per 100,000) is 14 times greater than the rate for black women of the same age (2.1 per 100,000). Some researchers suggest that blacks may be less prone to suicide because they are more religious. They tend to outpace whites in the United States on measures such as frequency of church attendance and prayer, closeness to God, and self-ratings of spirituality. Being part of a church community can also be a powerful source of social support, another protective factor.
Sally Spencer-Thomas also suspects that fraying social ties may play a role. She notes a 2006 study showing that Americans’ circle of confidants shrank by one-third in the previous two decades. And the number of people who said they have no one with whom to discuss important matters more than doubled in that time, to nearly twenty-five percent.
Thomas Joiner, a psychologist at Florida State University and author of Myths about Suicide (2010), speculates that the mainstreaming of gore may even be having an effect. When the people now in their mid-40s were in their teens (from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s), they were starting to get exposed to gory movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th. He believes that one of the most important factors that contributes to suicide is a “learned fearlessness” about physical pain, physical injury, and death. (Other factors, he says, include the idea that you are a burden on other people, and the feeling that you are hopelessly alienated from them.) As people develop an increasing tolerance to gore, perhaps they are more likely—when in extreme distress—to do themselves harm.
The author concludes by discussing his own emotional struggles and speculates on what lies behind suicidal thoughts:
To me, the essence of suicidal thinking is a kind of tunnel vision in which self-annihilation seems like the only solution to emotional pain. Perhaps this is why I’ve found comfort in environments that provide a sense of spaciousness and openness. Sitting beneath the vaulted ceiling of my church, or walking though the woods and coming upon a sunlit clearing, seems to take me out of my head and my concerns.
You can read the full article here.
In their comments below the article, readers offered their own ideas about the factors behind this situation. One reader, identifying himself only as “D,” speculated that divorce as well as career dissatisfaction played a huge role:
I too am at 45, but I would wonder about depression being the only angle out there. I and lotsa guys I know are adrift. In the middle of careers that are ‘meh’ That we may only have to support our families…
What percentage of these guys are divorced? I can think of nothing greater for alienation than divorce. Alienated from your kids, and chained to the job you have, to continue providing for them, while an ex may not be pulling the weight?
How about guys for whom their work is not seen by their family as being their ‘life’s work’ rather than a way to pay for family bills. The career that they have may no longer be seen as a value to itself, and that is pretty disheartening when you spend so much of your life doing it.
As for social structures, men who go through changes in their midlife are often cut off from these, because the groups are kinda exclusive. Most of my friends are still there, but their wives treat me as radioactive because I’m divorced. [What if their husband got any ideas?] Sadly I belong to a brotherhood of divorced guys who mostly share negatives in their lives, and commiseration.
…[M]en are not valued in our society and are treated only as wallets, slaves, and sperm donors by society at large. When you’re young you have all these dreams and aspirations, but eventually you settle down have a wife and family. The man works his butt off to pay the bills and spends his best and healthiest years slaving for a corporation and his family. If he’s lucky his wife won’t divorce him and turn him into a pauper, and eventually he’ll just have a nagging wife that always wants more and mouthy kids that are in never ending need. The corporate work environment is so hostile that women are more likely to be promoted over them and they can’t say anything because the rampant misandry makes it so anything a guy says can be used against him. Is it any wonder middle aged guys put a bullet to their mouth to be free of all this crap? Don’t get married and don’t have kids and work at a job that leaves you lots of free time and enjoy a happy fulfilling life. This is the advice I have heard from countless middle aged men and my friends and I have taken it and run with it.
Even if there’s some truth to this guy’s remarks, I hardly think that rejecting marriage and procreation is the answer.
In another 10 years, I’ll enter this demographic group, and to be completely honest, Fields’s article has made me stop and consider my own life. I’ve already hit a lot of brick walls; this article is a reminder for me to keep my faith in God strong, stay focused on the positive, and be more diligent about taking care of my mind and body.