Last spring, Frank Turkaly tried to kill himself. A retiree in a Pittsburgh suburb living on disability checks, he was estranged from friends and family, mired in credit card debt and taking medication for depression, cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure.
It was not the life he had envisioned as a young man in the 1960s and ’70s, when “people were more in tune with each other, people were more prone to help each other,” said Turkaly, 63, who owned a camera shop and later worked at Sears. “There was not this big segregation between the poor and the rich. . . . I thought it was going to continue the same, I didn’t think it was going to change.”
Turkaly said he regrets his attempt to overdose on tranquilizers, which he attributes to social isolation. But in one grim respect he is far from alone: He is part of an alarming trend among baby boomers, whose suicide rates shot up precipitously between 1999 and 2010.
It has long held true that elderly people have higher suicide rates than the overall population. But numbers released in May by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a dramatic spike in suicides among middle-aged people, with the highest increases among men in their 50s, whose rate went up by nearly 50 percent to 30 per 100,000; and women in their early 60s, whose rate rose by nearly 60 percent (though it is still relatively low compared with men, at 7 in 100,000). The highest rates were among white and Native American and Alaskan men. In recent years, deaths by suicide has surpassed deaths by motor vehicle crashes.
As youths, boomers had higher suicide rates than earlier generations; the confluence of that with the fact that they are now beginning to grow old, when the risk traditionally goes up, has experts worried. The findings suggest that more suicide research and prevention should “address the needs of middle-aged persons,” a CDC statement said.
There are no large-scale studies yet fleshing out the reasons behind the increase in boomer suicides. Part of it is likely tied to the recent economic downturn — financial recessions are in general associated with an uptick in suicides. But the trend started a decade before the 2008 recession, and psychologists and academics say it likely stems from a complex matrix of issues particular to a generation that vowed not to trust anyone older than 30 and who rocked out to lyrics such as, “I hope I die before I get old.”
“We’ve been a pretty youth-oriented generation,” said Bob Knight, professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California, who is also a baby boomer. “We haven’t idealized growing up and getting mature in the same way that other cohorts have.”
Even as they become grandparents and deal with normal signs of getting old, such as hearing and vision losses, many boomers are reluctant to accept the realities of aging, Knight said. To those growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, America seemed to promise a limitless array of possibilities. The Great Depression and World War II were over; medical innovations such as the polio vaccine and antibiotics appeared to wipe out disease and disability; the birth-control pill sparked a sexual revolution. The economy was thriving, and as they came of age, boomers embraced new ways of living — as civil rights activists, as hippies, as feminists, as war protesters.
“There was a sense of rebelliousness, of ‘I don’t want to live the way my parents did or their parents did,’ ” said Patrick Arbore, director and founder of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention at San Francisco’s Institute on Aging. “There was a lot of movement to different parts of the country. With that came a lot of freedom, but there also came a loss of connections. It was not uncommon to see people married three or four times.”
How did a generation that started out with so much going for it end up so despondent in midlife? It could be that those very advantages made it harder to cope with setbacks, said Barry Jacobs, director of behavioral sciences at the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Pennsylvania.
“There was an illusion of choice — where people thought they’d be able to re-create themselves again and again,” he said. “These people feel a greater sense of disappointment because their expectations of leading glorious lives didn’t come to fruition.”
Instead, compared with their parents’ generation, boomers have higher rates of obesity, prescription and illicit drug abuse, alcoholism, divorce, depression and mental disorders. As they age, many add to that list chronic illness, disabilities and the strains of caring for their parents and for adult children who still depend on them financially.
Perhaps a little more adversity in youth could have helped prepare them for the inevitable indignities of aging, Knight suggested, adding that “the earlier-born cohorts are sort of tougher in the face of stress.” Despite the hardships of life in the first half of the 20th century, he said, older generations didn’t have the same kind of concept of being stressed out.
Older generations also had clearer milestones for success. “They won the Great War, they saved the world,” said David Jobes, a professor of psychology at Catholic University and a clinician at the Washington Psychological Center in Friendship Heights.
Baby boomers, on the other hand, have struggled more with existential questions of purpose and meaning. Growing up in a post-Freudian society, they were raised with a new vocabulary of emotional awareness and an emphasis on self-actualization. But that did not necessarily translate into an increased ability to cope with difficult emotions — especially among men. Women tend to be better connected socially and share their feelings more freely — protective factors when looking at their risk for suicide. And African Americans and Hispanics tend to have lower rates of suicide than whites, possibly because of stronger community connections, or because of different expectations.
Combine high expectations with a faltering economy, and the risk goes up.
“We know that what men want to do is work — that’s a very strong ethic for them,” Arbore said. “When their jobs are being threatened, they see themselves as still needing to be in that role; they feel ashamed when they’re not able to find another job, or when their home is being foreclosed on. . . . The idea that so many of us in this country have been brought up with — that you work hard, you get your house, you get your American dream, everything is rosy — it hasn’t worked out. A lot of these boomers aren’t going to earn as much money as their parents did. They aren’t going to be as secure as their parents were. And that’s quite troubling for the boomers.”
Mike Murray of Rising Sun, Md., struggled with major depression for most of his adult years, even as he married, raised two children and owned a successful quarry maintenance and grass-mowing business.
His wife, Becky Murray, who ran the business with him, describes him as a perfectionist. “He always did well in school, he was a straight-A student; anything he did, he did well,” she said.
But in 2004 a back injury forced him to go on disability — and on powerful pain medications. In 2010 he made two attempts to overdose, and in early 2011, two days after his 49th birthday, he killed himself with a shotgun.
“He was handsome, he was smart, people loved him,” Murray said, but added that he felt increasingly depressed. “The pain medication changes the chemicals in your brain, so he felt like there was less of him,” she said. “He probably felt, here I am, this smart, capable person, but I can’t conquer this thing in my mind.”
And while he was grateful for his disability checks, she said, “It was very hard for him to accept this and to not contribute to his family.”
Nor are women immune. When Liz Strand’s 53-year-old friend killed herself two years ago in California, her house was underwater and needed repairs, she had a painful ankle that was exacerbated by being overweight, and although she had tried to find a partner, she was unmarried, like one-third of baby boomers.
“When everything started exploding on her it was too much for her,” Strand said, adding that as a boomer she herself recalls the shock of realizing that the good times were not eternal. “I just thought everything was going to continue to improve. I remember hearing at one point in a college class that, ‘No, it’s a pendulum.’ It was a real wake-up call.”
Believers from an early age in the power of medicine, boomers are more likely than their elders to turn to drugs, alcohol or even plastic surgery to mask their problems. “Boomers do not want to suffer,” Arbore said.
Exacerbating boomers’ anxiety is a sense that the world is more treacherous than when they were young, he said. Then, the communist threat and the atom bomb loomed large, but they were distant and abstract; attacks like the ones on the World Trade Center and the Boston Marathon have changed this paradigm.
“These events used to happen 6,000 miles away; now they happen here,” Arbore said.
It doesn’t help to live in a society that continues to worship the young. “We don’t venerate our elders as some cultures do,” Jobes said.
It is unclear whether younger generations will follow or buck the boomer trend as they age, or if boomers will continue to kill themselves at such high rates as they move into retirement.
“There are people who believe that this won’t hold true, that the baby boomers as they grow older will have some kind of protective effect,” said Yeates Conwell, professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester School of Medicine. “They have strength in numbers, they have quite a lot of political clout and by and large the financial resources of the baby boomers are quite high.”
For Turkaly, the Pittsburgh man, it helps to know that statistics show he is not the only guy his age having a hard time.
“I guess it makes me feel better, ’cause I’m not quite as alone as I think I am,” he said. “It’s not just me; it’s just the way things happened.”
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: www.afsp.org
National Alliance on Mental Illness: www.nami.org
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)