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Suicide rates of older adults are rising, recession to blame

Posted at 9:18 AM, Mar 04, 2015

Suicide rates for middle-aged adults have risen by about 40 percent since 1999, according to a recent study. Many of those deaths can be traced to the Great Recession, when millions of Americans lost their jobs, homes, savings and — all too often — their lives.

“This is a group of people who are going to be hit harder by a recession. They tend to be breadwinners, homeowners. They’re vulnerable to being hit really hard by this kind of stress,” said study author Katherine Hempstead, director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

About 8 million Americans lost their jobs and 2.5 million businesses shut down during the Great Recession, according to Northwestern University. That hit the middle aged particularly hard because they have dependants and haven’t yet saved for retirement, Hempstead said.

For the study, researchers examined data from the National Violent Death Reporting System from 2005 and 2010. Before the Great Recession, external economic factors were present in about 33 percent of suicides. After the recession, it was 37 percent.

Suicide by suffocation (typically hanging) increased by 60 percent, suggesting that the suicides were impulsive, rather than due to an underlying psychological issue.

“These are suicides being committed by people who haven’t been thinking about suicidal acts for a very long time,” Hempstead said. “There’s an opportunity to intervene if we identify that they’re going through a crisis.”

Women were less likely to commit suicide compared to men. When women did commit suicide, it was more often due to longstanding personal or psychological issues, Hempstead said.

Men were more likely to kill themselves under external stresses like a job setback or home foreclosure.

“You should know that these are actually life stressors that have been shown to be contributing factors to suicide,” Hempstead said. “If you’re working with people going through these life events, you should be aware of these risk factors.”

More than 40,000 Americans committed suicide in 2013, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. It is the 10th leading cause of death for Americans.

Gavin Stern is a national digital producer with the Scripps National Desk.