The Riggs Blog

Suicide Rates on the Rise - Part One of Three

By Elizabeth Weinberg, M.D.

On May 3, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in their weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report, announced an increase of 28.4% in the suicide rate for adults age 35 to 64 years, with the greatest increases above age 45. Specifically, rates of suicides in these groups increased from 13.7 to 17.6 per 100,000 from 1999 to 2010. Notably, this was a reversal of a previous trend towards decreased suicidality throughout the United States. Since this report was released, it has received a great deal of public attention. With a population that includes the “baby boomer” generation, this finding seems to be a possible commentary on the stresses and ailments affecting adults in 2013.

A number of explanations have been offered, although answers are elusive. Changes over the past decades in the economy and in the economic safety net leave many in this age group with far less security than their parents enjoyed. There has also been speculation about whether this “boomer” group reflects the generational influence of such factors as the Vietnam War, an increase in recreational drug use, and the social changes of the nineteen sixties. The CDC report notes a possible “cohort” effect, as the same group of people now currently in the adult age group were also at increased risk of suicide when they were adolescents.  

A particular disappointment in these statistics is the apparent failure of advances in public health, psychology, psychiatry and psychopharmacology to reduce the rate of suicide in the adults one might expect to be their greatest beneficiary. The decades these adults lived through included the explosion of psychopharmacologic tools for psychiatrists, the “decade of the brain,” and exciting developments in the study of psychiatric illness. The number of prescriptions written for antidepressants has gone up strikingly in the past decade, yet we are not any better at the prevention of suicide.  How are we to understand this paradox? It’s not easy to explain the interface between current trends in psychiatric treatment and generational changes in suicidality. 

Part Two

Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). May 3, 2013 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 62:321-325. 
McKeown, R.E., Cuffe, S.P. and Schulz, R.M. (2006). US Suicide rates by age group, 1970-2002: An examination of recent trends. Am J Public Health, 96(10): 1744-1751
Olfson M, Marcus SC. (2009). National Patterns in Antidepressant Medication Treatment. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 66(8):848-856. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.81.

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