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Jane Ahlin: Culture surely a factor in higher suicide rates

The suicide of Robin Williams hit us in our national solar plexus. Unexpected and utterly bewildering to legions of fans of all age groups, political persuasions, and economic and educational levels, his untimely death stopped us cold, needing a second wind. How could despair overtake a man of such talent – incredibly funny, incredibly wise – a man whose long career never really faltered? Where does that overwhelming despondency that culminates in suicide come from?

It’s unknowable (yes, it is), and his story is his alone. Still, questions nag: What about our culture? How does culture influence the incidence of suicide?

Suicide statistics for the past decade are damning. We’re told every 13 minutes of every day there’s a suicide. More Americans now die from suicide than die from motor vehicle accidents. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention “there were 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle crashes and 38,364 suicides” (2010). In addition, the overall suicide rate for middle-aged Americans (35-to 64-year-olds) rose 30 percent between 1999 and 2010. The increases happened in all regions in the country and in about 80 per cent of the states. There is no historical precedent for the increase.

Dr. Ileana Arias, CDC deputy director, quoted in the New York Times, said “It is the baby boomer group where we see the highest rates of suicide. There may be something about that group and how they think about life issues and their life choices that may make a difference.”

A sociologist from Rutgers also quoted, said, “The boomers had great expectations for what their life might look like, but I think perhaps it hasn’t panned out that way.” Sadly, the great increase in suicides currently attributed to baby boomers is not expected to go away when we age out. The culture is changed.

Before exploring that notion, the chicken-egg conundrum of depression and addiction must be mentioned. As Time magazine reported, “Up to 90 percent of all people who commit suicide have been diagnosed with depression or some other form of mental illness in their lives. About one-third of people with serious depression have had struggles with drugs and alcohol … 25 percent to 35 percent of people who commit suicide have a chemical substance in their blood at the time of death.”

The toxic mix of depression and substance abuse is the disease of our times, but society hasn’t quite given up seeing it as personal failure rather than brain disorder. On the plus side, we are becoming more educated on the subject and more societal openness about suicide is proving helpful.

Perhaps boomers can be credited for more openness. Emotional awareness and the struggle for meaning and purpose in life have been hallmarks of boomer attitudes. That’s not to suggest that the complicated mix of “biological, psychological, social, and spiritual” factors figuring into suicide suddenly can be boiled down to tragic boomer angst. But we should discuss how our age group’s obsession with youth, idealistic notions of peace and equality, and embrace of social experimentation has played out over time. After all, the youngest members of our generation turn 50 this year and the oldest are only a birthday or two away from 70. Having reached the stage of life where the face in the mirror looks more like Grandma or Grandpa than ourselves, we should be concerned about the world we’ve shaped.

That world includes an increased incidence of suicide that we don’t really understand. Still, the unknowableness of any particular suicide is no excuse for inaction. We must see the study of suicide as a study of life the way we live it today, personally and generationally.

In the rebellious boomer years, our generation was bent on carving out new ways to be in the world. Life was supposed to be about creating and re-creating. We should get back to that.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email