When it comes to suicide, the young and the old get most of the attention; traditionally, they're regarded as the age groups most at risk, and preventing such tragedies has been the focus of a great deal of research and funding. After the suicide of Oregon senator Gordon Smith's 21-year-old son in 2004, for instance, the state devoted $82 million to youth suicide prevention programs. Among the middle-aged, however, suicide is regarded with some bias, as if it were merely the refuge of down-on-their-luck losers with nowhere else to turn. But the facts clearly contradict this: according to the New York Times, "of the more than 32,000 people who committed suicide in 2004, 14,607 were 40 to 64 years old (6,906 of those were 45 to 54); 5,198 were over 65; 2,434 were under 21 years old." Here's another staggering fact: a recent CDC study shows that between 1999 and 2004, suicide among those aged 45-54 increased by nearly 20%, and in women it jumped 31%. (For comparison's sake, the rate amongst teenagers rose only 2%.)
But it's not just the US that's struggling with this problem. In Japan, suicide among 30-somethings is higher than it's ever been, making it one of the highest in the developed world. Random public stabbings are also a problem in Japan; researchers believe both are being exacerbated by extraordinarily stressful work environments, coupled with low pay, rigid corporate hierarchies and traditions and something perhaps uniquely Japanese: "We live in an uncomfortable and restrictive society where trivial matters are important," said Professor Kiyohiko Ikeda, a veteran social commentator at Waseda University. "The young feel a sense of deadlock; society does not accept minor mistakes."
The world's highest suicide rates, regardless of age group, are in Russia and the former Soviet bloc; countries like Lithuania, Belarus and Kazakhstan. They suffered a huge spike in the early-to-mid-nineties, as democracy and the new world order changed life in that corner of the world dramatically (and not always for the better). Tragic -- but not a huge surprise. Compared to middle-aged suicide in Japan and suicide in general in the former Soviet states, which seem to have a few clear (though tough-to-solve) causes, the recent dramatic spike in American middle-aged suicide is mysterious.
There are a few theories, however. One specifically identifies the American "Baby Boom" generation as unusually prone to depression, a conclusion reached by some researchers nearly twenty years ago. Theories about that usually cite the sharp differences between the way they were raised by their WWII-era parents and, thanks to the changing pressures of modern life, the way have raised their own children; I know several boomer parents who pine for the "family values" and tight family social network their parents provided, which they feel guilty about not being able to provide to their kids.
But that's just one theory. Another holds that a sharp drop in hormone replacement therapy in women after 2002 contributed to an increase in depression in middle-aged women. Another cites an increasing suicide rate among veterans -- not those recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan (that's another story), but Vietnam vets. Or, some contend, the "spike" in middle-aged suicides could merely be a statistical fluke. But even if that were the case, the facts remain: most people who kill themselves are middle aged, and yet those are the tragic cases we least often hear about.