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The financial crisis may have been to blame for a sudden spike in middle-age suicides

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The financial crisis may have taken a larger toll on middle-age Americans than previously thought.

The economic tumult may have been behind a sharp increase in suicides among adults between 40 and 64, according to new research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Suicide rates among this age group have increased 40 percent between 1999 and 2010, while rates leveled off for other age groups. And there was a sharp increase in suicides among this age group tied to external circumstances — not related to mental health or interpersonal factors — at the onset of the financial crisis in 2007, the researchers found.

Past studies have linked economic downturns to an increase in suicides, but such research looked at high-level data. The authors of this new research analyzed information from the National Violent Death Reporting System, a detailed database maintained by the CDC. It compiles information from medical examiners, toxicology reports, death certificates and other sources to provide a detailed picture of the circumstances surrounding violent deaths of individuals in 16 states.

The vast majority of suicides are linked to personal issues, such as mental health problems. But the proportion of suicides linked to external factors — such as job, financial or legal woes — increased from 33 percent in 2005 to 37.5 percent by 2010 among middle-age adults, according to the study.

"The sharpest increase in external circumstances appears to be temporally related to the worst years of the Great Recession, consistent with other work showing a link between deteriorating economic conditions and suicide," wrote study authors Katherine Hempstead, director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Julie Philips of the Institute for Health Care Policy and Aging Research.

The method of suicide may also be telling, the researchers say. Suicide by suffocation — a method more likely to be linked to financial or legal troubles — increased 59.5 percent percent among middle-age adults between 2005 and 2010, they found. That's about three times the rate of increase for suffocation among people ages 15-19.  Suffocation as a means of suicide rose across all age groups, which the researchers say could be tied to a decline in gun ownership.

The takeaway from the study: more consideration should be given to mental health needs during tough financial times. The authors write: "Increasing access to crisis counseling and other mental health services on an emergency basis, as is often provided at times of natural disaster, should also be considered in the context of economic crises."