The death of Robin Williams has once again renewed focus on a worrying trend: middle-aged male baby boomers who increasingly take their own lives.
“Baby boomer men are at heightened risk of suicide compared to the generation that preceded them,” says Julie Phillips, professor of sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences. “I can’t draw conclusions about Robin Williams’ death, but Williams seems to have had many of the risk factors — a 63-year-old man with a history of drug addiction, alcoholism and depression who was dealing with new physical health problems.”
Williams’ wife released a statement last week saying the entertainer was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease at the time of his death.
Phillips’ research, published recently in Social Science and Medicine, has shown that male baby boomers are 1.6 times more likely to kill themselves than men born in the 1930s.
“Historically, across all generations, suicide rates rise dramatically during adolescence and young adulthood,” Phillips says. “For men, rates tend to level off in maturity and middle age and then start to increase again in old age. But with boomers, this doesn’t seem to be the case. The rise that we’ve seen in suicide rates since 1999 among boomers while in their 40s and 50s is unusual.”
And more disturbing still, Phillips says, is that once the effects of age, current events and generation on suicide rates are teased apart, the risk for younger generations — for people in their 20s and 30s — appears to be higher than that of prior generations.
“Looking at the average risk of suicide for different generations, we see that boomer men have a higher overall average risk of suicide than the generation that preceded them, and the generations following them have even higher rates of suicide,” Phillips says. “This is a troubling trend that we should continue to monitor.”
The causes of suicides are many and various, and Phillips stresses that as a demographer she looks at the big picture. She does, however, offer some ideas about why baby boomers, especially men, may be more susceptible to suicide — and why younger generations may face the same problem.
Phillips points out that aftershocks from the social earthquakes of the 1960s and 1970s are still rippling through the society. During that time, the number of individuals getting married decreased at the same time the divorce rate was increasing, resulting in a larger number of people living alone today. According to the 2010 census, 28 percent of all U.S. households now consist of one person. For some, these new living arrangements alongside new technologies may lead to increased social isolation.
Baby boomers and subsequent generations are also less religious than previous generations. Phillips says studies indicate that religious devotion has not increased among baby boomers as they age. In addition, health problems, particularly those related to obesity, and economic instability that was compounded by the Great Recession of 2008-2009 have hit boomers hard, particularly men, in part because they were largely unanticipated.
“We’re in a position now where suicide rates for middle-aged people are higher than those for the elderly — what I call a new epidemiology of suicide,” Phillips says. “That hasn’t happened before, at least not in the last century. The concern is that as those middle-aged people move into old age, where suicide rates are typically higher for men at least, we may see them get higher still.”