The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Spring
2012

Old, Divorced—and Suicidal


Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson


As they contemplate the next few decades, public-health officials worry about an epidemic of suicide among the elderly. One such official, Debra Karch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, recently noted that more than seven thousand Americans age 60 or older already commit suicide each year. And Karch warned, “As the population continues to age, the number of suicides by older adults is expected to climb as the ‘baby boomers’ reach older adulthood.”

To help her colleagues understand what social conditions aggravate this grim problem, Karch parsed suicide data from 2007 to 2009 from seventeen states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin), representing 26 percent of the U.S. population. Her analysis gives reason to fear that the divorce revolution of the late-twentieth century will translate into an epidemic of elderly self-slaughter in the years ahead.

The data indicate that the unmarried are decidedly overrepresented among the older Americans who committed suicide during the study period. Almost half of men (47 percent) and almost two-thirds (63 percent) of women who committed suicide were divorced, single, or widowed. Thus, marital status turns out to be a highly significant predictor of suicide among older Americans of both sexes (p<0.001).

In her findings, Karch sees “a challenge for the field of public health,” as officials strive “to identify which of the many potential strategies are the most effective for suicide prevention among older adult males and for females.” To this end, Karch suggests measures such as “reducing the stigma of seeking care for mental health and substance abuse problems, . . . [and] reducing access to lethal means.” But anyone who can read her findings will see the urgent need to slow the traffic into the nation’s divorce courts and to increase the traffic into its wedding chapels.

(Debra Karch, “Sex Differences in Suicide Incident Characteristics and Circumstances among Older Adults: Surveillance Data from the National Violent Death Reporting System: 17 U.S. States, 2007–2009,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 8.8 [August 23, 2011]: 3479–95.)

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