Phillips is also the co-author of a 2014 study3 showing a strong link between unemployment rates and suicide rates among middle-aged adults, but not among other age groups. “Those in middle age often are breadwinners with dependents — both parents and children — so these changes may have a particularly devastating effect” on them, says Phillips. Her findings are in line with a 2011 CDC study4 that was the first to investigate the relationship between suicide rates and business cycles.
According to results, rates decreased during periods of economic growth and increased during periods of recession. This association was only found for individuals between 25 and 64 years old, however, suggesting that “people in prime working ages were more vulnerable to recessions than others,” Thomas R. Simon, PhD, Associate Director of Science for the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention, and one of the co-authors of the 2013 CDC paper, told Psychiatry Advisor.
Other potential variables date back to the very years in which a portion of this age bracket was came of age: It is possible that the Baby Boomer generation in particular is influencing the trend. “This group had unusually high suicide rates when they were adolescents and their movement into middle adulthood might contribute, in part, to the increasing trends,” said Simon. Certain social and cultural changes that took place during the 1960’s may have negatively affected resources that had previously served as buffers to suicidal risk, Phillips adds, including changes in family structure and the nature of employment, declining religious involvement, and shifting employment and economic patterns.
While some of these changes have had an impact on all segments of society, “I think there’s reason to suspect they have affected postwar cohorts and those in midlife more dramatically, given their stage in the life course,” he added. Simon points to the rise in prescription painkiller abuse5 as a factor that may be affecting the growing middle-age suicide risk (this group has the highest prescription painkiller overdose rate), and Phillips notes additional developments that could be involved. While healthcare costs are climbing, health conditions are deteriorating among middle-aged adults, partially because of rising obesity rates.
At the same time, the use of social media and advanced modes of remote communication have become commonplace, further eroding the traditional buffer of social support. “On the one hand, these new modes can enhance connection, but they can also reduce face-to-face interactions and may increase feelings of loneliness,” Phillips said.