Boomers are killing themselves. Why?

Tuesday’s front page of the Washington Post had a collection of interesting stories above the fold: “Justices uphold Md. law on DNA,” “For Hezbollah, a risky engagement in Syria,” a large and compelling photo of “Chaos in Turkey’s streets,” and “Why the sharp rise in suicides by boomers?” I’m not nearly so melancholy about the demise of the print news product as some I know, but this type of front page is what I love — happening upon interesting stories you may not have sought out online on your own.

The url for the last story about boomer suicides is “baby-boomers-are-killing-themselves-at-an-alarming-rate-begging-question-why” but the online headline was fixed. To beg the question is not to raise the question. From BegTheQuestion.info:

“Begging the question” is a form of logical fallacy in which a statement or claim is assumed to be true without evidence other than the statement or claim itself. When one begs the question, the initial assumption of a statement is treated as already proven without any logic to show why the statement is true in the first place.

A journalistic example might be to use the term “marriage equality” to describe the debate over whether to change laws to cover same-sex couples or other groupings. The term might be fair if everyone agrees that marriage is about the union of any two or more people for any commitment. If some people argue that marriage is about the conjugal union of man and woman, the use of the term is unfair. To beg the question by using the term “marriage equality” is a logical fallacy that journalists shouldn’t engage in. But the Washington Post story about boomer suicides simply raises and explores the question of “why” — it does not beg any question.

And how it explores that question is by and large extremely well done. For instance, right up top:

There are no large-scale studies yet fleshing out the reasons behind the increase in boomer suicides. Part of it is likely tied to the recent economic downturn — financial recessions are in general associated with an uptick in suicides. But the trend started a decade before the 2008 recession, and psychologists and academics say it likely stems from a complex matrix of issues particular to a generation that vowed not to trust anyone older than 30 and who rocked out to lyrics such as, “I hope I die before I get old.”

It’s informative without claiming to have more substantiation for these theories than are actually present. For instance:

“There was a sense of rebelliousness, of ‘I don’t want to live the way my parents did or their parents did,’?” said Patrick Arbore, director and founder of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention at San Francisco’s Institute on Aging. “There was a lot of movement to different parts of the country. With that came a lot of freedom, but there also came a loss of connections. It was not uncommon to see people married three or four times.”

How did a generation that started out with so much going for it end up so despondent in midlife? It could be that those very advantages made it harder to cope with setbacks, said Barry Jacobs, director of behavioral sciences at the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Pennsylvania.

“There was an illusion of choice — where people thought they’d be able to re-create themselves again and again,” he said. “These people feel a greater sense of disappointment because their expectations of leading glorious lives didn’t come to fruition.”

Instead, compared with their parents’ generation, boomers have higher rates of obesity, prescription and illicit drug abuse, alcoholism, divorce, depression and mental disorders. As they age, many add to that list chronic illness, disabilities and the strains of caring for their parents and for adult children who still depend on them financially.

Perhaps a little more adversity in youth could have helped prepare them for the inevitable indignities of aging, Knight suggested, adding that “the earlier-born cohorts are sort of tougher in the face of stress.” Despite the hardships of life in the first half of the 20th century, he said, older generations didn’t have the same kind of concept of being stressed out.

Older generations also had clearer milestones for success. “They won the Great War, they saved the world,” said David Jobes, a professor of psychology at Catholic University and a clinician at the Washington Psychological Center in Friendship Heights.

I love boomers, even if the one that gave birth to me tried to convince me last week that boomers “invented the long skirt.” Someone needs to tell my mom that fashion history didn’t begin in the early 1960s. But the Post sort of lets that admittedly harsh critique of boomers be openly discussed. As one correspondent put it:

Let’s see… the most narcissistic, self-indulging, self-entitled generation in history, a generation raised on rebellion for rebellion’s sake, the generation of sex-drugs-and rock n’ roll, the generation that tossed church and faith and humility right out the window, the generation that embraced the quest for eternal youth like no other before it… this generation is now staring the truth of mortality right in the face. I’m shocked, shocked that so many are killing themselves.

Obviously that’s about the harshest way to characterize the generation which also has many wonderful things to say for it. But the story doesn’t do a bad job of fairly and gently discussing all of that. Again, as the child of boomers, I’m also aware that many of the criticisms of boomers apply merely to the more vocal subset of same. I mean, not everyone went to Woodstuck, joined New Age sex cults or dropped acid, right? And why do boomers have to bear the brunt of all the criticism. Someone raised that generation, right?

But even the uptick in suicides is, at worst, 30.7 men aged 50-54 per 100,000 and 7 women aged 60-64 per 100,000. It’s wise not to blame everyone for the suicides of relatively few, as interesting as this story is.

But the correspondent identified the one thing that the story didn’t — religion! I was surprised that a story that touched on so very many other things wouldn’t discuss religious adherence or practice, particularly in light of the role it plays in helping people fight some forms of mental illness or suicidal thoughts.

It’s a major absence in an otherwise well-told story about an interesting and alarming statistic.

Image of boomers via Shutterstock.

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  • Sari

    “But the correspondent identified the one thing that the story didn’t —
    religion! I was surprised that a story that touched on so very many
    other things wouldn’t discuss religious adherence or practice,
    particularly in light of the role it plays in helping people fight some
    forms of mental illness or suicidal thoughts.”

    Is there data to support the contention above? Lots of strategies help at least some people, but is being religious a bigger deterrent than most?

    The most publicized suicide in recent weeks has been Rick Warren’s son, who grew up in a religious setting, was clearly religious himself, and had, by all accounts, top notch psychiatric treatment. The local high schooler who committed suicide last year came from a very religious Baptist family, was active in his church’s youth ministry, an outstanding student and very decent human being. So, before we insert religion into the equation, we should be sure it belongs there.

  • boinkie

    Medically, there are statistics on this.
    and this one notes that religiousity tends to predict a lower suicide rate.

    http://www.hsccs.org/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=13737
    which says:

    Involvement with a religion may provide a social support system, a
    direct way to cope with stressors, a sense of purpose and/or hope, and
    may lead to a stronger belief that suicide is wrong. Religiosity also
    seems to be related to other demographic factors; religious North
    Americans are much less likely than nonreligious people to abuse
    drugs/alcohol and to divorce (which are both associated with increased
    suicide risk).

    Ironically, Black Americans have a low suicide rate (is it religion or culture?) while American Indians have a very high suicide rates.

    Doctors, especially women doctors and psychiatrists, tend to have a high suicide rate too, maybe because they help others, but rarely ask for emotional support themselves (the rate is between 32 and 40)…. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/410643_2

    and one wonders if pushing the idea of “physician assisted suicide” as a “rational” choice is making this “choice” by the depressed less taboo among those sick, disabled, and aging….especially those without families to support them.

    • Sari

      Thank you for the link, boinkie. It’s important, though, to include the preceding paragraph, which states:

      “Exactly which religion(s), during what ages/developmental periods, and among which ethnicities remain unanswered questions. Many of the studies of the relationship between religion and suicide have been too small, contradictory, or flawed to make overall conclusions. However, research suggests that in the United States, areas with higher percentages of individuals without religious affiliation have correspondingly higher suicide rates.”

      http://www.hsccs.org/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=13737

      Further down, data suggest that people in rural areas (who are typically more engaged with religious institutions than those in urban areas) attempt suicide at higher rates -and- tend to be successful when they try

      So is it religion, belief in a divine entity, the cultural aspects of religion or simply being part of a larger group? Most Boomers I know retained but *redefined* religion in their lives (disclosure: I am a late Boomer). Atheism is much more prevalent among their grandchildren (see below).

      http://www.gallup.com/poll/159785/rise-religious-nones-slows-2012.aspx

      Absent longitudinal studies which document a person through life, we don’t know whether increased religiosity correlates with age and impending mortality or whether irreligiosity typically persists through a lifetime. But, mainly, we should be careful not to impose our own beliefs that religion is a positive thing. What was written in the article rang true; adding the religious dimension, especially with the implied but unsubstantiated belief that Boomers are irreligious as a group (they’re not), made no sense to me.

  • http://thinkunity.com/ John Kuykendall

    I am a Christian and feel Christianity is losing the cultural war because it
    is teaching opinions that annoy and not the stillness of the mind that leads to
    peace. This is what the baby boomers need the redemption in the present moment. People who left or avoid churches today are looking for the Holy
    Spirit. The churches need to make God’s presence in the here and now the
    priority so people find peace of mind and an alternative to suicide.

  • n_coast

    A search reveals that this story was repeated in various news outlets. Suicide data for the United States shows that the rate of suicides for the age group 45-64 years was higher in 1950 and decreased until 2000 (www.suicide.org). Since 2000 the rate for that age group has increased steadily according to http://www.suicidology.org. It appears that the group born between 1946 and 1964 were more likely to commit suicide than people born shortly before and shortly after those years.

  • Alice

    I was close to a person of that generation who died by suicide many years ago. I don’t know why but I guess no one ever knows for sure. She was definitely terrified of growing old, and of losing people. She was religious, but struggled with it a lot. She was most likely bi-polar and suffered from depression since her teen years. She was never able to have children, and that was a source of deep pain. She had been through a lot, and likely more than I know. There also seems to be a high risk when medications are changed. I try not to dwell on the “why” since there is no way to know.

    On the subject of the link between religion and suicide, sadly, there are plenty of churches who look down on therapy and medication as weak or worldly, or teach that people are mentally ill because they sin. That all they need to do is pray and read the Bible more, or maybe go to an exorcism. Those things may help, but serious mental health problems usually require more, just like going to the doctor for physical health issues. Fortunately more and more churches are learning about mental health issues and providing quality Christian resources.


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