Why Are More Middle-Aged Women Killing Themselves?

A recent report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found a 49 percent increase in emergency department visits for drug-related suicide attempts for women 50 years and older.  Women in the 40-69 age bracket are at greater risk of killing themselves than other women, according to research on age-specific suicide rates between 1998 and 2007.  In 2007, this age group comprised 60 percent of the 7,328 suicides reported among women.  The question is:  Why is this happening to middle-aged women?

There is a possibility that it is a question of numbers: One in four American adults has a treatable mental health condition; women in the 40-69-year-old age group represent one of the nation’s fastest-growing populations.  Alternatively, it could be a function of baby boomers’ elevated rates of substance abuse, a critical risk factor in suicide, said Julie Phillips, Ph.D., a social demographer and associate professor at Rutgers University.  According to Phillips, the age-specific rates were derived from data from the National Center for Health Statistics and the Census Bureau.

During the nine-year time period studied, suicide rates remained fairly stable for women younger than 40; for women older than 70, suicide rates declined.  Women 50 and older may be in crisis because pain and sleep disorders — widespread problems related to aging — often lead to increased use of prescription drugs, said Albert Woodward, Ph.D., the project director of SAMHSA’s Drug Abuse Warning Network.  According to the SAMHSA report, suicide attempts involving drugs to treat anxiety and insomnia rose 56 percent.  Woodward said that middle-aged women may experience depression because of declining health and other negative life events.   Loneliness and depression also are risk factors for suicide.  “Older women, especially in the U.S., are more isolated and separated from daily human contact outside of work and the internet,” said Ellyn Kaschak, Ph.D., emeritus professor of psychology at San Jose State University and the editor of the journal Women & Therapy.

Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, a psychologist and licensed clinical social worker in Sarasota, FL, has found  a surprising increase in suicide attempts by women aged between 45 and 54.  Women are susceptible to depression but older women may also be suffering from pre-menopause hormone fluctuations that can affect mood changes and depression.  According to Dr. Wish, women in their middle years are more aware of their mortality and may be disenchanted that they will never be happy.  Becoming an empty nester also is stressful.

Of greater concern is the 67 percent increase of women taking hydrocodone, and an astonishing 210 percent increase for women taking oxycodone.  According to SAMHSA administrator Pamela S. Hyde, J.D., “The steep rise in the abuse of narcotic pain relievers by women is extremely dangerous and we are now seeing the results of this public health crisis in our emergency rooms.  Emergency rooms should not be the frontline in our efforts to intervene.  Friends, family, and all members of the community must do everything possible to help identify women who may be in crisis and do everything possible to reach out and get them needed help.”

Because they are often members of the so-called “Sandwich Generation,” middle-aged women frequently discount their own needs as they organize commitments to jobs, marriages, kids, and aging parents.  Many say they don’t get enough sleep and eat too much junk-food.  According to medical experts, these habits — combined with soaring cortisol (a steroid hormone, or glucocorticoid, produced by the adrenal gland) levels — from stress — could mean this will be the first generation of women who don’t live five to seven years longer than males.

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