Why Do More Americans Die From Suicide Than Car Accidents?

Media attention and prevention efforts tend to focus on suicides in adolescents and veterans, but the baby boomers may be the most at-risk cohort yet. Suicide rates in aging boomers are rising at a staggering rate, reveals Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s new study, Suicide Among Adults Aged 35-63 Years — United States, 1999-2010.

The study evaluates mortality data from 1999 to 2010 on American adults ages 35 to 64 broken down by sex, age, race and ethnicity, state and region, and mechanism of suicide. The numbers show that the suicide rate in that age range increased 28.4% in those eleven years, from 13.7 per 100,000 in 1999 to 17.6 in 2010. 

The data reveals 31.5% more women and 27.3% more men committed suicide than in the previous decade — but suicides among men still outnumber those among women 27.3 to 8.1 per 100,000. Men have greater rates of completed suicides, yet women make more attempts. Men’s utilization of lethal methods — firearms in particular — largely accounts for the disparity.

The rate for men in their 50s rose over 48%, more than any other age bracket. The surge of suicides in women came a few years later, in their early 60s (59.7%). Among ethnic groups, the starkest increase was found in American Indian/Alaska Native populations (65.2%) and whites (40.4%).

The method of suicide also shifted. Suffocation (hanging) increased by 81.3%; yet firearms and poisoning, respectively, remain the most prevalent mechanisms. This helps to explain why most American suicides occur in the West, where firearms are more readily accessible. (Debates on gun control typically focus on interpersonal violence, yet death by a self-inflicted gunshot accounts for 56% of all fatal firearm injuries compared to 41% by interpersonal violence.)   

What happened between 1999 and 2010? In short, retirement and recession may be to blame. Boomers are weaning off their full-time jobs, which for many means a loss of daily structure, social engagement, and a sense of purpose as a family provider. The economic downturn and increased accessibility to prescription opiods used for overdosing (namely Oxycontin/oxycodone) are also factors in the rising suicide rates. 

The prevalence of suicide in this generation could be due to a “cohort effect” — Boomers also had higher rates of suicide during adolescence than other generations. CDC deputy director Dr. Ileana Arias comments, “It may not be that [boomers] are more sensitive or that they have a predisposition to suicide, but that they may be dealing with more … the boomers had great expectations for what their life might look like, but I think perhaps it hasn’t panned out that way.” She adds, “All these conditions the boomers are facing, future cohorts are going to be facing many of these conditions as well.”

“The hard question facing 21st century America is whether this retreat from community can reverse itself, or whether an aging society dealing with structural unemployment and declining birth and marriage rates is simply destined to leave more people disconnected, anxious and alone,” writes columnist Ross Douthat.

Suicide has become the fourth leading cause of death for middle-aged Americans, compared to the tenth for the general population. Suicide rates are rising across all ages and socioeconomic brackets. Since 2009, more Americans died of suicide than from motor vehicle accidents, which have substantially decreased in recent years. 

“The results underscore the importance of prevention strategies that address the needs of persons aged 35–64 years, which includes the baby boomer cohort,” concludes the study. In an effort to reverse the trend, the CDC calls for suicide prevention strategies to “enhance social support, community connectedness, and access to mental health and preventive services, as well as efforts to reduce stigma and barriers associated with seeking help.”

If you’re concerned that someone you know may be at risk for suicide, please go to www.suicidology.org for a listing of state-by-state suicide crisis lines or NAMI’s page on suicide risk factors and strategies for prevention.