Suicide rate leaps for white, middle-aged women

Teen suicide gets plenty of airtime, but a new American study finds that middle-aged whites, particularly women, are an emerging high-risk group. The study notes that the increase in the overall suicide rate between 1999 and 2005 was due primarily to an increase in suicides among whites aged 40 – 64, with white middle-aged women experiencing the largest annual increase.

Whereas the overall suicide rate rose 0.7 percent during this time period, the rate among middle-aged white men rose 2.7 percent annually and 3.9 percent among middle-aged women. “I don’t usually worry about the middle-aged group. It’s alarming to me,” said study co-author Holly Wilcox, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who is also involved in suicide prevention efforts.

The researchers also conducted a detailed analysis of suicide methods across specific population groups. While firearms remain the predominant method, the rate of firearm suicides decreased during the study period. Suicide by hanging or suffocation increased markedly with a 6.3 percent annual increase among men, and a 2.3 percent annual increase among women. Hanging/suffocation accounted for 22 percent of all suicides by 2005, surpassing poisoning at 18 percent.

“The results underscore a change in the epidemiology of suicide, with middle-aged whites emerging as a new high-risk group,” said study co-author Susan P. Baker, a professor with the Bloomberg School’s Center for Injury Research and Policy. “Historically, suicide prevention programs have focused on groups considered to be at highest risk – teens and young adults of both genders as well as elderly white men. This research tells us we need to refocus our resources to develop prevention programs for men and women in their middle years.”

The reasons for the increase in the suicide rate are not fully understood. “While it would be straightforward to attribute the results to a rise in so-called mid-life crises, recent studies find that middle age is mostly a time of relative security and emotional wellbeing,” said Baker. “Further research is warranted to explore societal changes that may be disproportionably affecting the middle-aged in this country.”

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Source: Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, American Journal of Preventive Medicine

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