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White, Middle-Age Suicide In America Skyrockets

White, middle-age suicide spiked 40% in the last 10 years. Why?

Suicide, once thought to be associated with troubled teens and the elderly, is quickly becoming an age-blind statistic. Middle aged Americans are turning to suicide in alarming numbers. The reasons include easily accessible prescription painkillers, the mortgage crisis and most importantly the challenge of a troubled economy. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention claims suicide rates now top the number of deaths due to automobile accidents.

The suicide rate for both younger and older Americans remains virtually unchanged, however, the rate has spiked for those in middle age (35 to 64 years old) with a 28 percent increase from 1999 to 2010. The rate for whites in middle-age jumped an alarming 40 percent during the same time frame. According to the CDC, there were more than 38,000 suicides in 2010 making it the tenth leading cause of death in America overall (third leading cause from age 15-24).

The US 2010 Final Data quantifies the US statistics for suicide by race, sex and age. Interestingly, African-American suicides have declined and are considerably lower than whites. Reasons are thought to include better coping skills when negative things occur as well as different cultural norms with respect to taking your own life. Also, Blacks (and Hispanics) tend to have stronger family support, community support and church support to carry them through these rough times. 

While money woes definitely contribute to stress and poor mental health, it can be devastating to those already prone to depression -- and depression is indeed still the number one risk factor for suicide. A person with no hope and nowhere to go, can now easily turn to their prescription painkiller and overdose, bringing the pain, stress and worry to an end. In fact, prescription painkillers were the third leading cause of suicide (and rising rapidly) for middle aged Americans in 2010 (guns are still number 1).

Just because a person attempts suicide doesn't mean they want to die. Rather, often they have lost what I call the, “power of hope”. When faced with a bad situation that has no end in sight, coupled with the helpless feeling that nothing you can do will make a difference it’s all too easy to lose hope. At that point suicide for some becomes a viable option rather than continuing to face the constant pain and suffering that life has become. If you can give someone who is contemplating suicide merely the glimmer of hope, that is often enough to get them through the rough patch to consider other options.

Suicide may inspire others to view it as a way out, as well. Suicide epidemics, copycat suicides and the Werther effect (suicides that spike after a highly publicized suicide) are all in play at this point. We thought until recently that this was primarily a problem affecting other countries with different social norms (Japan) or of economies that had collapsed (Greece), but statistics don’t lie -- this is an American problem and it is now huge. 

Suicide is not a hip topic. Suicide is not something that's discussed at the water cooler. BUT, suicide is something that needs to be acknowledged and discussed. We are constantly warned, “if you see something suspicious, say something” to prevent acts of terrorism. This should hold true as well for your friend, colleague, co-worker or family member who is having a tough time. Sometimes just a short conversation can save a life.

Dale Archer, M.D., is a clinical psychiatrist and author of The New York Times bestseller, Better Than Normal: How What Makes You Different Can Make You Exceptional.

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