When you think about a demographic with the highest suicide rates, the male teen to young adult group automatically comes to mind. Among 15- to 24-year olds, suicide accounts for 12.9% of all deaths annually. It’s the second highest cause of death for males aged 25 to 34, and the third highest cause of death among males aged 15 to 24. Many suicide prevention programs are targeted to young males, and that’s as it should be.
But recent data from the CDC tells us there may be other demographics that require suicide prevention efforts. According to a 5-year review of data from 1999-2005, the fastest growing suicide demographic is among adults aged 45 to 54. And among women in that age group, suicides jumped by 31%. Experts are stymied as to why a midlife increase in suicide is occurring – research is thin and theories are rife. But one of the most likely targets may be an increase in the use of prescription drugs:
Dr. Dan Gottlieb who writes a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer states that midlife depression not unusual or incurable. He notes that he sees many middle-aged people who express feelings of lack of fulfillment or that their dreams have escaped them and it is too late to change. He cites a recent study that adds data to his observations:
At the moment, the prime suspect is the skyrocketing use — and abuse — of prescription drugs. During the same five-year period included in the study, there was a staggering increase in the total number of drug overdoses, both intentional and accidental, like the one that recently killed the 28-year-old actor Heath Ledger. Illicit drugs also increase risky behaviors, CDC officials point out, noting that users’ rates of suicide can be 15 to 25 times as great as the general population.
What employers can do
Research published this month in the journal Social Science & Medicine found that the probability of depression rises around middle age, peaking around age 44. After studying data from 500,000 Americans and Western Europeans, the researchers discovered that psychological well-being is at its lowest during the middle of the life cycle regardless of gender or location.
As with any other major public health concern, the impact of suicide is felt in the workplace. According to the American Association of Suicidology, nearly two-thirds of all suicides occur among the nation’s work force, Americans ages 25-65, which translates to roughly 20,000 suicides a year. One of the first vital steps in addressing any problem is raising awareness, so the sharing of CDC data is significant in building that awareness. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) suggests that employers can play an important role in helping to prevent suicide. Because people spend such a significant portion of their day at work, employers have the opportunity to observe changes in behavior, personality or mood. Training managers to be alert for and make referrals when they observe signs of depression and other early warning signs of problems may save lives. SPRC points to the following warning signs:
- Talking about suicide or death
- Making statements like “I wish I were dead.” and “I’m going to end it all.”
- Less direct verbal cues, including “What’s the point of living?” “Soon you won’t have to worry about me” and “Who cares if I’m dead, anyway?”
- Uncharacteristically isolating themselves from others in the workplace
- Expressing feelings that life is meaningless or hopeless
- Giving away cherished possessions
- A sudden and unexplained improvement in mood after being depressed or withdrawn
- Neglect of appearance and hygiene
- Sudden unexplained deterioration of work performance or productivity
Many suicide prevention groups suggest an easy mnemonic to remember warning signs: IS PATH WARM
If you observe warning signs or changes in behavior or personality, don’t try to diagnose the problem or find the reason for the behavior changes, simply help the employee to find professional assistance through your EAP or an occupational health specialist. Work performance can be a great leverage for getting people who might otherwise be reluctant to seek help for a problem. For an additional resource, the World Health Organization has a 32-page booklet on Preventing Suicide – A Resource at Work.