A New Group Goes on Suicide Watch — and Elite Media Can’t Figure Out Why


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Is high unemployment leading to massive increases in suicide? The New York Times really doesn’t think to ask? Why do people imagine that suicide is all about depression rather than desperation? (Note: this image came from a Russian website; for safety reasons, I’m not linking to it and in fact this image itself comes from a screenshot rather than a download.)

As you may not yet be sufficiently depressed going into this first weekend of May, have a look at this story from the New York TimesSuicide Rates Rise Sharply in U.S.:

Suicide rates among middle-aged Americans have risen sharply in the past decade, prompting concern that a generation of baby boomers who have faced years of economic worry and easy access to prescription painkillers may be particularly vulnerable to self-inflicted harm.

More people now die of suicide than in car accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which published the findings in Friday’s issue of its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. In 2010 there were 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle crashes and 38,364 suicides.

Suicide has typically been viewed as a problem of teenagers and the elderly, and the surge in suicide rates among middle-aged Americans is surprising.

From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people, up from 13.7. Although suicide rates are growing among both middle-aged men and women, far more men take their own lives. The suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.

The most pronounced increases were seen among men in their 50s, a group in which suicide rates jumped by nearly 50 percent, to about 30 per 100,000. For women, the largest increase was seen in those ages 60 to 64, among whom rates increased by nearly 60 percent, to 7.0 per 100,000.

That’s all I feel able to quote directly from the article, but if you’re interest in the topic you should go read the whole thing.  It’s worth your time — despite the fact that the part that I highlighted in bold above shows pretty conclusively that either the journalists or the researchers on whose study they reported are, apparently, idiots.

Whatever could possibly explain this “surprising” rise in suicide rates among people in the age range of me, Vern, and several other of our writers and commenters here?  NYT readers stepped in immediately to say: “duh!”  I’m going to quote at length some of their comments on the question posed after the story, “What factors do you believe are contributing to the rising suicide rate?”

Economic hopelessness. My brother committed suicide last July. He had just turned 60. He lost his IT job in the Great Recession in 2008. Despite hundreds of resumes being sent out, and a lifetime of IT experience, he got few interviews and no job offers. He spent down his 401(k) and when he died the only thing he owned was a beat-up car. We later found out he had a lot of credit card debt, with which he had tried to keep himself afloat. After four years of no job offers, unemployment running out, having no health insurance, etc., his dignity was shot. He had lost hope of ever working again. How I wish he had not committed suicide; how I would give anything and everything to have him back. I consider him one of the casualties of the Recession and when I read of the fat bonuses the banksters award themselves, I shake with rage that they have continued to prosper while people like my brother lost all hope and people like me lost a loved one.
  • Jen D, New Jersey

Why is suicide usually looked upon as a desperate and forbidden act?

Can’t we accept that in addition to poverty, loneliness, alienation, ill health life in world that is sometimes personally pointless means that death is a relief?

I believe the right to die, in a time and place (and wishfully peacefully without violence) is a basic human right.

We seem so terribly afraid of it.

We look for “factors” that contribute….

One would have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to understand that in addition to money troubles or loss or grief…that there are places in people’s hearts and souls that are not open to others…to analyze or tabulate or study.

And these “places” are not subject to life coaches, or the endless American drumbeat of “tomorrow, tomorrow,” or cheer-up drugs.

Sometimes it is just time to end life.

Sometimes the struggle to pretend that all will be well becomes absurd and burdensome.

I think we need to do our best to love, understand and help all around us…but allow them to opt out, when they no longer feel able to endure.

  • molly, san diego

Shrink the jobs, multiply the guns, and widen the gap between rich and poor so far that the American dream of equal opportunity is a sad joke.

  • David, Toledo

I’m not at all surprised–and would expect the increase among 50+ men to be recession-based, given the much greater permanent unemployment in that cohort than in past recessions.

Losing your ability to provide for your family is devastating. If you’re over 50, lose your job, can’t find another, need to provide for your family and are fortunate enough to have substantial life insurance that has been in place long enough to pay off for suicide, it’s not even an irrational choice. Not the choice most people would want to make, especially when you consider the emotional impact on children, spouse, other loved ones. But being an economic provider may come first in many men’s minds.

  • AW, Boston

I’m 56, female, and also row the Too-Old-To-Even-Interview boat. My favorite turn-down lines are things like, “You’re overqualified,” and “This job takes alot of energy.”

That said, my father worked for TWA for 36 years. They retired him on his 65th birthday but at least he had a career. Now all America demands is “jobs” – that 4-letter political campaign slogan.

Male or female, any age, people want to belong — to each other, to their communities, to their “careers”, to their dreams, to something. A “job” keeps you off the streets, but usually holds nothing better for the future. A “job” seems like what the 47% do, according to Romney and his friends, when they can’t just sit on their behinds waiting for government handouts.

This country needs to take a long hard look at itself and its “definition” of capitalism and employment. Currently, it means disposability of workers on a whim. How can we ask our young people to be pioneers or adventurers or innovators or inventors when all the politicians can do is blather about “jobs.” It is minimum wage thinking that produces minimum wage mentalities.

As the guy said who came to trim our trees the other day, “The problem with this country is no one gives a s–t about anything anymore.” It was his opinion (with which I agree), not a whine or an excuse. We need to care again about who and what we are as people and a nation, and what we can be.

Careers, not jobs. Respect, not disposability

  • Leesey, California
Yes I often have considered the value of my life insurance policy, the opportunity to give my wife a “nest-egg” to go back to school..and the awareness that my Social Security benefits, will go a lot further for one than two. Additionally ,my wife has a much much stronger family safety net than I.
I weigh all of this against the lifelong grief I would saddle upon her. Always wondering if there was something she could have done or said. Or why I never told her how I was feeling.I am (at 60) in a very lucrative “medical contractor” job,w/o benefits,w/o insurance. In 2010 I had less than 12 weeks of work and fell below the Federal poverty level, as Scrooge-ish as it is.. Two years later we are back on our feet,for the moment.

In someways it’s mostly our love that keeps me going..because I have the means and the willingness to trade my used up pointless life, to try and get my wife a fresh start.

It’s only the hurt that it would cause her,which makes me feel so selfish, that kept me going in 2010.

  • Ridem, Wyoming

As a geriatrician I have been expecting this for years. High unemployment, low savings rates, the end of the traditional pension and employer-sponsored health insurance all leave many in this age group looking at a long old age of destitution and dependence. Men especially will not stand for it. I meet people in their 50′s and 60′s every day who have negative net worth, underwater mortgages, have lost jobs and insurance. I have even had a few people refuse treatment for treatable diseases and enter Hospice to avoid the expense of end of life care-and, unlike suicides, their loved ones can still collect life insurance to help pay for their funerals. This is the kind of society we are now, winner take all and the devil take everyone else. We need another labor movement, but it will be too late for this cohort who actually believed the garbage they were fed about working hard always paying off.

  • Maryanne Evans, Arlington VA

I have had many friends over the age of 50 who have considered suicide because of the economic situation. These are highly educated, professionals. The truth is, when people lose their job now it’s hard to get another job. That’s especially true if you are over age 50, and if you are over age 60 it’s even worse.

Many people have lost great career positions and then struggled to find anything. In the meantime, they have gone through their savings and started pulling money out of their retirement accounts. Many people have nothing left.

No one wants to go homeless and die on the street like a dog. Therefore, many people view suicide as being a better option.

Most people aren’t independently wealthy. If they lose their job and paycheck and run through their savings and retirement accounts to keep a roof over their head and food on the table in their 50s or 60s, then how do they continue to do that in their 70s or 80s? Going homeless becomes a matter of when, not if. I see elderly homeless people bedding down on sidewalks and parks every night here, along with families with little kids. But people over age 50 can’t come back from homelessness. They will never be able to work again. It will never get better.

I think suicide will only become more prevalent as time goes on and more people over the age of 50 lose their job.

  • LY, St. Petersburg, FL
I don’t dare think about it. I’m all my kids have (husband is dead, bless his memory). I have been called for many, many interviews– my keying speed and experience look really good– but I don’t get even the courtesy of rejection letters. We have run through the college CDs and are living on my husband’s 401(k), which makes us ineligible for SNAP or Medicaid, or maybe it’s just my fault that I could not bear to fill out the applications which ask for your car’s VIN and for copies of your bank statements and any cash in the house, etc. I know that safeguards are necessary to keep out the cheaters, but the process seemed too humiliating and I gave up. When the 401(k) money is gone, then I will have to try again. I don’t know how to navigate “the system” and the other system that I thought I knew, where you demonstrated your skills, proved your work ethic, earned certificates and degrees, then applied and got hired– that system is apparently gone. I do not know what we are going to do.
  • Leilani Karp, Los Angeles

My uncle committed suicide in December. He was in his fifties and his mother, my grandmother, had passed away two months before. He had spent the last six years taking care of her as her health slowly declined. He did this full time and was unable to work. As a result he had no job and felt no one would hire him and he gave up.

People want to talk about how money isn’t important, well it is important when you’re facing the loss of your house, being kicked out on the street, living homeless in the last years of your life when you’ve spent all your life having a roof over your head and food on your table. The people in this article claim they don’t know why suicide rates have risen but the answer is obvious: people are losing hope because our government continues to destroy everything for their own interests.

  • Lee, Houston, TX

Because the vast majority of our society define themselves based on their careers, and our society is a youth oriented one, loss of career in economic downturns rapidly follow loss of youth as it is easier, more economical to hire youth at a starting salary than to pay the salary of experience,leading to the cost of paying pensions.. That said, loss of career means loss of identity, status, respect, reason for being for many. Let’s face it, we are a nation that despises poor people, treating them as if they have a character flaw…..otherwise they would not be poor. I’m not surprised at all of the rising suicide rate.

  • wrldtrvlr3341, FL

Kudos to the NYTimes for this article. Suicide in this country is a grossly under reported topic, mostly banished by the media from the view of “middle class”. Classicism and elitism are real killers in this country. We live in a place where neighbors don’t speak to neighbors. Where our communities have no sense of community. Where isolation triumphs for fear of one-liner sarcasm and ridicule. Where money has somehow become the basis of friendships. So when a friend falls down on his or her luck, there is no sense of genuine sharing and caring expected from friends or family by the one who needs help and understanding. Our mostly superficial, myopic and dog-eat-dog sense of community has created a dreary climate where suicide can thrive. My sincerest heartfelt deepest thanks for bringing this story of suicide to light. Please do not let this be the last article discussing this issue. This is an extremely significant article.

  • privacy advocate, dc

The article is disturbing but the comments are the story in the story. With each comment I became more sad. It seems obvious that capitalism is reaching its darwinian conclusion: those who are good at making money (and not necessarily anything else) get to survive (thrive) while all others whither away and become extinct. Especially poignant are the comments highlighting how we are no longer a community of Americans who care about each other and that we are clearly not in this together. I just don’t get what values people believe in anymore when so few have so much and the rest are just marginalized. Suicide does seem to be the only “rational” choice left to those who have no other way to provide for the ones they love.

  • peter bailey, ny

As the last comment suggests, the story is disturbing, but the comments are fiercely illuminating.  I am aghast that we seem not to understand, as a society, that there is a real and dire human cost to unemployment and privation.  Refusing to use public resources when money is cheapest to borrow to create needed jobs because it might stimulate a little inflation — or, even more damnable, because it might help elect people from the other major political party —  is one of the most contemptible things I have ever seen in politics.  It has real effects on people’s lives, it causes real deaths, it causes the effects of those deaths — especially when self-imposed due to hopeless depress — to spill over into and eat away at yet more lives.

Do people at the New York Times truly not understand that this has been what we have been arguing about over the past 6 years when it comes to our economy?  Do they truly not understand that this is what those of us who want the government to help create jobs for people so that they have warned would happen?  Is this really a SURPRISE to them that people would consider killing themselves out of economic desperation or because their families’ economic lives would in some ways improve without them, if they could not contribute adequately to their loved ones’ support?  We have cultures where those who can’t produce economically are put out on ice floes to drift away, or some equivalent — do they truly not imagine that some people, out of devotion to their loved ones, would put themselves on that ice floe if they thought that it would help their families?

Do they truly doubt that some who commit suicide would prefer to live if it did not come at the expense of their loved ones — that the grief that their suicide might cause others, great as it may be, does not necessarily exceed the cost of staying on one’s present course to economic oblivion, with the rest of the family along for the ride?

Do we really have to start this discussion of economics and suicide at THAT basic a level, by making reporters and politicians read those letters and see if they get get past their sociopathic lack of understanding of how people think and feel?

How can those letters possibly be a surprise to the writer who asserted that “the surge in suicide rates among middle-aged Americans is surprising“?

As I’ve noted here, I suffer from depression and have done so for a long, long time.  (Since  late 2010, it’s been treated, quite successfully, thanks to new SSRIs.)  But even the deepest funk of depression never pushed me to take an affirmative step towards killing myself.  There’s a difference between wanting to kill yourself, with the attendant effects that may have on others, and simply wanting to die, wishing that one could simply not exist anymore — to sleep, in Hamlet’s words.  There are many more depressives than there are attempted suicides.  And while other recent notable suicides have involved the escape from pain or shame or humiliation, some of it is as unwanted, but seemingly logically necessary, as the one in the climax of Miss Saigon — someone who wanted to keep living could not do so if she wanted to benefit someone else.

The only times I’ve actually wanted to kill myself (and I’ve never tried, happy to say, and hope that that remains so forever) have been not from depression, but from desperation — usually deriving from the sorts of economic circumstances described above.  Looking at the letters, looking at the statistics, I think that I’m not alone there among people — especially men, expected to be breadwinners — among my age.  The low-job, bad-job economy — greatly a function of the refusal of the Republican Party to do anything about it, while waving their hands and shouting (as they don’t generally do when they are in the ones in office) that our biggest problem is the deficit.  Well, read those comments, above.  Is our public spending designed, in part, to prevent the likes of that?

Honestly, if someone doesn’t understand why middle-aged men, among others are increasingly killing themselves in this economy — a phenomenon that I first encountered, by the way, in learning from a police-officer neighbor of mine who told me how very many laid-off LEOs were killing themselves with their own service revolvers — then that person shouldn’t be writing about it.  At a minimum, maybe they should talk to some of their readers before they write — and then they can figure out the difference between depression and desperation.


About Greg Diamond

Worker's rights attorney now moving into "good governance" litigation. North Vice Chair of Democratic Party of Orange County and occasional candidate. Proud to be prolix. Unless otherwise specifically stated, his writings never speak for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level. He tries to either suppress or openly acknowledge his partisan, issue, ideological, and "good government" biases in most of his writing here. If you have a question about any particular writing, just ask him about it and (unless you are an pseudonymous troll) he will probably answer you at painful length. He lives in Brea but generally doesn't blog about it. A family member works as a campaign treasurer for Wendy Gabriella in AD-73; he doesn't directly profit from that relatively small compensation and it doesn't affect his coverage. He does advise some campaigns informally and without compensation, although in 2014 he may receive some compensation for campaign consulting and fundraising for the campaign of Jorge Lopez for Orange County Assessor.