Arts, Culture & Humanities

Suicide boom?

Claude Fischer

Charles Fischer [no relation to your blogger] arrived in New York City in 1890. A well-educated clerk from Stuttgart, Germany, he struggled in America, failing in real estate, in the saloon business, and finally in china plate decorating. He divorced and lost touch with his only child. Fischer wrote his mother, “I cannot stand this much longer. If I don’t get work within two weeks I will have to go out on the street and work as a laborer.” At 10:00 pm on a Saturday evening in 1896, he entered his small rented room on East 3rd Street, sealed up every crack, and turned on the gas without lighting it.[1]

Suicide Prevention LifelineFischer’s suicide puts into historical context news reports from this past week of a “startling” (to quote the PBS Newshour) rise in suicides among the middle-aged over the last ten years. (Actually, it’s not such new news; essentially the same story was reported three years ago.) Fischer’s case illustrates that suicides often come in waves – his was one of many committed by immigrants in late 19th-century American cities. It also illustrates the role of technology – gas became a common tool of suicide. And it illustrates the importance of financial strains – he took his life in the middle of the Panic of 1896. The 21st-century suicide spurt has an additional twist, however: Boomers.

Long view

Suicide fascinated the great social thinkers of Charles Fischer’s day. They observed the rise in suicide rates in Europe and America during the 19th century and many believed that suicides were a cost of modern life. Over the 20th century in America suicide rates fluctuated up and down, but they did not, in net change, over the century. (See discussion in Made in America, pp. 231ff.) Suicide rates for the elderly dropped a lot; rates for young men rose. In any case, modernity does not seem to have been the issue.

Suicide rates rise and fall in response to several factors. One is simply how accurately we determine and count which deaths are suicides [2].

Another is the technology of suicide. The introduction of gas lines to homes in the 19th century made “taking gas,” as Fischer did, a new and easier means of suicide. When the British phased out coal gas for less lethal natural gas several decades ago, their suicide rate dropped by a third.[3] Technology can matter because many, if not most, suicides are impulsive. Thus, the easy availability in the U.S. of guns to the depressed helps elevate our suicide rates, and restricting access to the tools of suicide tends to reduce the rates.[4] (And, of course, responders can use life-saving technologies to turn some would-be suicides into failed suicide attempts.) Last week’s CDC report speculates that the wider availability of powerful painkillers has made suicide easier in recent years and thus more frequent.

A third factor is economics. Bad times leads people like Charles Fischer to take their lives. Suicides spiked in the United States during the Depression and they generally rise, at least among Americans of working age, during recessions.[5] One estimate is that each increase of a point in the unemployment rate during the Great Recession produced a one percent increase in suicides.[6] Even before, in the first half of the 2000s, the economy was mediocre for less-educated Americans. Suicide rates among middle-aged people without college degrees rose then; they did not rise for college grads.[7] That suicide rates among the elderly have dropped so much in recent decades is explainable in terms of their improving economic (and probably, health) circumstances.[8]

Many other factors foster suicides, as well. For example, disrupted families, religion (lack of it), and having family, friends, or celebrities commit suicide elevates individuals’ risks of trying suicide. [9] But an intriguing twist in the latest reports is cohort or generation, particularly the generation of the Baby Boomers.

Boom

Aside from all of these factors, it appears that Americans born during the Baby Boom are especially at risk of committing suicide. As I wrote the last time this suicide news was news, in 2010 (Boomer Blues), “It appears . . . that Americans – especially the men – born between roughly 1948 and 1960 have had a particularly hard time during their youth, or during their later adulthood, or during both” with respect to drugs, marital problems, crime, and unhappiness. On suicide, in particular, some research suggests that the experience of crowding – so many people, especially men, trying to squeeze through the same school doors and the same job openings in the same few years – had lasting depressive effects ending in elevated rates of suicide even decades later.[10] Add to this crowding the historical experience of Vietnam, violent civil disorders, and rapid cultural change just as these Boomers were becoming adults and the resulting mix is certainly stressful.

There appears now to be a confluence of factors: the Baby Boomers are aging; an unusually high percentage of them had rocky youths that may still disturb them; some of them are now encountering the hard economic times of the Great Recession; and easy access to drugs on top of the easy access to guns is probably making those moments of despair too common and too easily acted upon.

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NOTES

[1] “Poverty Drove Him to Suicide,” New York Times, Apr. 20, 1896. On the late 19th century wave, see, e.g., Lane, Violent Death in the City, 1979.
[2] E.g., Pescosolido & Mendelsohn, “Social causation or social construction….,” Am. Soc. Rev., 1986.
[3] Anderson, “The Urge…,” New York Times Magazine, July 6, 2008. See also here.
[4] Guns: e.g., Bearman and Moody, “Suicide..,” Am. J. Pub. Health, 2004.  Other means restriction: e.g., Pirkis et al., “The effectiveness of structural interventions…,” Int. J. Epidemiol., 2013; Yip et al., “Means restriction…,” Lancet, 2012.
[5] Luo et al., “Impact of business cycles…,” Am. J. Pub. Health, 2011.
[6] Reeves et al., “Increase in state suicide rates….,” Lancet, 2012.
[7] Phillips et al., “Understanding recent changes…,” Pub. Health Reports, 2010. On such education differences, see this earlier post.
[8] Cutler and Meara, “Changes in the Age Distribution….,” NBER WP#8556.
[9] One review is Wray et al., “Sociology of suicide,” Ann. Rev. of Sociol., 2011.
[10] See, e.g. Pampel, “Cohort size….,” Demography, 1996; O’Brien & Stockard, “A common explanation….,” Soc. Forces, 2006.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

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