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Mining the Depths of Despair

Sociologist Julie Phillips explains the steady rise in suicides among Baby Boomers—and perhaps why the trend won't end with this generation.

illustration by james steinberg
Through new analytical methods that parse patterns according to the effects of age, specific time periods, and generation, Julie Phillips has developed a sharper picture of the Americans most driven to kill themselves.

Julie Phillips’s sobering work on the demographics of suicide supports a pattern first observed by professionals during the 1970s: the rising rate of suicide among the generation of Americans known as baby boomers, first when they were adolescents and now as middle-aged Americans. At first blush, it would appear to be a puzzling phenomenon. After all, this was one privileged piece of demography: people born between the end of World War II and the early 1960s—a period of unparalleled prosperity in the nation that ushered in the relaxing of many rigid cultural and social mores in America. 

Through new analytical methods that parse patterns according to the effects of age, specific time periods, and generation, Phillips has developed a sharper picture of the Americans most driven to kill themselves. She believes the data may indicate a “changing epidemiology of suicide.” Historically, the elderly have taken their lives in the greatest numbers. However, the baby boomers ushered in a trend of rising suicide risk that appears to be found among subsequent generations, a trend she predicts will stabilize in the near future. As a result, the middle aged have replaced the elderly as the group most likely to take their own lives.

In April, Phillips—who holds a joint appointment as an associate professor in the Department of Sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences and at the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research, part of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences—presented her revealing analysis to the annual meeting of the Population Association of America (PAA).                                                                                                             — Wendy Plump

Julie Phillips
Julie Phillips is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences and at the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research, part of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences. Photography by Nick Romanenko

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: How did you become interested in this subject?
JULIE PHILLIPS: I received a grant in 2008 from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to extend my work on time trends in mortality from lethal violence—from death by homicide to death by suicide. Earlier work on this topic tended to reflect the biases of research disciplines: psychiatrists looked at antidepressant drug use; economists looked at the unemployment rate; and sociologists and demographers emphasized factors such as family structure, religious composition, and age structure. I wanted to consider all these factors simultaneously. As I examined the longitudinal data, I quickly discovered a highly unusual increase in suicide rates, beginning in 1999, among the middle-aged, or those considered baby boomers. People of this age had had either stable or declining suicide rates for decades. This led me to focus on the reasons for differing suicide risk across various “birth cohorts,” or generations. 

RM: What did you find?
JP: The paper that I delivered at the PAA meetings presented an analysis based on 75 years of data on suicide deaths in the United States, looking at the period from 1935 to 2010 to compare the suicide risk of various generations. I noted the seemingly unusual risk of baby boomers, an age group that experienced high rates of suicide in adolescence and now again in middle age. I found that the suicide risk for male cohorts begins to rise sharply with the baby boomer generation and has continued for subsequent generations. A similar increased risk in suicide for the postwar generations is observed among U.S. women, although it’s less pronounced than it is for men.

RM: What are some of the things that are contributing to boomers killing themselves in middle age?
JP: There are many likely factors. We know that baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, exhibited high rates of suicide in adolescence—scholars writing in the mid-1980s argued that individuals of a generation that is exceptionally large are subject to disadvantages that persist throughout life, such as greater competition in schools and for jobs. So, they are carrying an elevated risk with them into middle age. We see evidence of this, but it’s also clear that patterns shifted dramatically after 1999. So today, those aged 45–54 have the highest suicide rates.

RM: So, what could be causing this?
JP: Financial pressures; deteriorating health and rising health care costs; the rise of social media and different forms of communication; increased use, and abuse, of prescription drugs, including antidepressants. There are also fewer protections for those in this age range. For example, boomers haven’t shown an increase in religiosity as they age, as have earlier generations. And boomers are more likely to be single (divorced or never married) and not have children. Many of these factors, which can lead to increased social isolation and less social regulation, will also apply to the generations younger than boomers as they move into middle age and may affect their rates of suicidal behavior as well. On the other hand, as these social and cultural patterns become more the norm, fewer may be inclined to kill themselves.

RM: Does social inequity play a role?
JP: Suicide disproportionately afflicts certain disadvantaged groups—those who are less educated, poorer, and more socially isolated, for example. However, unlike with homicide, African Americans and Hispanics are less likely to die by suicide than Caucasians.

RM: How can your research be put to best use?
JP: The field of psychology dominates the research on suicide, and suicide-prevention programs rely very heavily on its research, typically focusing on risks affecting the individual, such as earlier attempts or history of depression, to identify those who might harm themselves. I hope my work draws attention to the role of sociological factors in causing suicide, and the importance of community-based suicide-prevention programs. •

 

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