DAYTON, Ohio – Keith Wildermuth was the life of the party until the day that he became part of a grim statistic – the growing trend of baby boomer suicides.
A new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a 50 percent increase in suicides among men in their 50s. The same study showed that 2009 – the year of Wildermuth’s death – was the first year in which deaths by suicide surpassed deaths by car crashes.
On Nov. 16, 2009, Wildermuth, 52, put a gun to his head inside his van parked in Iron Horse Park. The shooting followed several unsuccessful suicide attempts, including an overdose of muscle relaxants the previous February.
“People say a suicide attempt is just a cry for help,” said his widow, Barb Wildermuth. “Well, yes, it is. Help them.”
The CDC’s report is causing suicide prevention experts to rethink their emphasis on outreach to young adults and the elderly.
“This means there’s virtually no age group that isn’t at risk,” said Ryan Peirson, a psychiatrist and chief clinical officer for the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Montgomery County. “We can’t rely on the old chestnut about young people being more impulsive and older people dealing with pain and medical issues and lots of loss. There’s now a high and equally scary number for all age groups.”
The greatest increases were seen among men in their 50s, whose rate went up by nearly 50 percent to 30 suicides per 100,000 men, compared with 20 per 100,000 in 1999. The suicide rate for women in their early 60s rose by nearly 60 percent while remaining relatively low compared with men, at seven suicides in 100,000. In 2010, the latest year for which figures are available, 38,364 suicide deaths were recorded in the United States, compared with 33,687 motor vehicle deaths.
“We just don’t know the reason this is happening, but the numbers are increasing at a time when boomers are taking hits to their good retirement accounts and those things we used to call pensions,” said Peirson of baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964.
The CDC report’s co-author, Dr. Thomas Simon, said there are several possible explanations for the rise in boomer suicides, including the downturn in the economy and the quadrupling of prescription painkiller abuse since 1999.
“Working-age adults are most vulnerable,” said Simon, a researcher with the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “The baby boomer generation historically had higher suicide rates than earlier generations. Now they’re facing financial challenges and the stressors of being caregivers for aging parents.”
Peirson also cited growing social isolation in an increasingly mobile, Internet-focused society.
“Attendance at church is down and so is membership in clubs,” he said. “Nothing is a substitute for human interaction.”
Tricia Marks, president and CEO of Dayton’s Suicide Prevention Center, said she has seen a huge increase in calls from baby boomers on the suicide prevention hot line. While the loss of a relationship is a leading cause of suicide among teens and college students, the loss of livelihood is one of the leading causes for middle-aged men, she said.
“When men lose their jobs, sometimes they question who they are,” Marks said. “All too often we hear men who say my family would be better off with my life insurance.”
Firearms remain the most common method of suicide for both men and women, but the CDC report showed an 81 percent increase in deaths by hanging and suffocation since 1999 as well as a 24 percent rise in poisoning deaths.
Each suicide is as unique and complex as each individual, each family.
“We’re not able to answer with certainty the cause of the increase,” Simon said.
Barb Wildermuth married her husband six years before his death. There were deepening financial problems stemming from the failure of his flooring installation business, K&G Carpet, and the family tragedy that she said never left him.
In 1998, his 13-year-old daughter accidentally shot and killed her 16-year-old brother, Jeremy, with a gun Wildermuth had bought for their protection after an incident in the neighborhood.
Starting a business with his surviving son, Josh, had been a lifelong dream that helped Wildermuth to heal after Jeremy’s death.
“When his business life took a bad turn, he couldn’t handle it,” his widow said. “He was very much a people person, an outgoing, happy-go-lucky guy. He had the demeanor of having no problems, and he couldn’t reconcile those two things in his mind.”
Kelly Clausing, 22, Barb’s daughter, observed, “He didn’t let anyone but us see that he was down.”
Added Barb: “The minute he left the house, the ‘Keith face’ went on. It’s harder for someone like that to get help.”
In late October, Keith had been hospitalized after an overexposure to paint fumes that was treated as an accident. Because of his previous suicide attempts, she said she asked for a psychiatric evaluation, but was told “he was fine.”
Three weeks later, on the morning of Nov. 16, 2009, Keith woke up in good spirits. Barb, usually fearful to leave him alone, felt fine about going to work that day. It wasn’t until afterward that she realized Keith had said goodbye to her – twice.
“Now I know that being cheerful on the day of a suicide attempt is very common; they are at peace because they have made up their minds,” she said.
Barb had tried to get hold of her husband while at work but really became alarmed when she got home and he wasn’t there. “I knew he would be in a park, and I hit every park except the one he was in,” she said.
His body was found later that night, family photos scattered near the body. The van he was in was from his days at K&G Carpet.
Like most suicide survivors, Barb was wracked with guilt. She remembered a conversation shortly before his death in which she told him, “I don’t know how much longer we can do this.”
In her mind, that meant she needed stress relief. In Keith’s mind, she fears, the remark translated into her wanting out of their six-year marriage. “His fear was that I wouldn’t stay with him because he was nothing,” she said. “I stayed because I loved him.”
It was hard not to be angry, not to take Keith’s suicide as a form of personal rejection. “Yet he was in such physical and emotional pain, he felt there were no other options,” Barb said. “He felt that he had lost everything.”
Wildermuth couldn’t find a support group for suicide survivors and felt deserted by some of her friends.
“People don’t know what to say or do, so most of them just kind of go away,” she said.
She advises families worried about loved ones to “be persistent; don’t let doctors tell you they’re OK when you know they’re not.” She added, “They do need constant attention so constantly reassure them that you love them and you want them to be here. Show them they are worth something through every avenue you have.”
Suicide prevention experts also urge vigilance, particularly with this age group which may be more inclined to hide their emotions.
“It’s sad that they feel that they have to be strong or can’t show weakness or vulnerability or frustration,” Marks said. “It hurts them and keeps them from seeking help at an earlier time when so much more can be done.”