Robin Williams Death Highlights
Increase in Suicide Among Middle-aged Men
Suicide rates in middle-aged are
higher than for the elderly; male baby boomers are 1.6 times more likely
to kill themselves than prior generation
19, 2014 - 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. Julie Phillips, professor of sociology at Rutgers,
notes 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.
Phillips’ research, published
Social Science and Medicine, has shown that male baby
boomers are 1.6 times more likely to kill themselves than men born in
“Baby boomer men are at heightened
risk of suicide compared to the generation that preceded them,” says
Phillips, professor in the
School of Arts and Sciences. “I can’t draw conclusions about
Robin Williams’ death,” she added by emphasized how his situation seems
to fit the pattern for many previous suicides. She pointed out that
Williams' wife said the entertainer was in the
early stages of Parkinson's disease at the time of his death.
“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.” (To reach NJHELPLINE, the suicide prevention
hotline operated by Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, click
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
“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
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
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