SACRAMENTO, Calif. – As Dec. 24 ticked to a close in 2011, 65-year-old Michael Kelley walked into the dark of his backyard near Sacramento High School and hanged himself from a beam on the deck.
The Vietnam veteran, who struggled with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress and heart disease, died in the hospital on Christmas afternoon.
“I just relive it in my head,” said his widow, Cathy Kelley, now 63, who was separated from her husband when he died. “I know the dark hole of being really low. How sad he must have felt walking out there in the dark.
“That’s what I think of the most.”
Although experts have long thought of midlife as a time of stability and emotional contentment, baby boomers are proving to be an unfortunate exception. Reversing a longtime demographic trend, midlife suicides are on the rise for the generation born between 1946 and 1964.
National figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that the suicide rate for people in this age group rose by almost 30 percent during the decade ending in 2010, even as the rate among people 85 and older – traditionally, the demographic most likely to kill themselves – dropped by 12 percent.
For people ages 45 to 54, the suicide rate was 19.6 per 100,000 in 2010. For people ages 55 to 64, it was 17.5 per 100,000. For the whole population, the national rate was 12.4 per 100,000 that year, according to the CDC.
“Historically, people in this middle-aged group have had flat rates of suicide,” said Julie Phillips, the Rutgers University social demographer whose research helped identify the trend.
“After 50 to 60 years of data, to see this spike for this generation, it’s time for us to figure out what’s going on.”
For now, researchers and suicide experts have more theories than answers as to why the middle years have become a danger zone for suicide.
“We don’t really know, but the increase in this middle-aged group is thought to be in part because of the economy,” said Paula Clayton, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention medical director.
“It’s always been known that during a period of unemployment, there are higher rates of suicide. That was even clear in the 1920s.”
With unemployment and a resulting lack of health benefits, she said, someone who has previously sought help for depression or other problems might forgo treatment or fail to fill his medications.
As Diane Sommers, executive director of the Suicide Prevention of Yolo County (California) crisis line, said: “With the instability in the economy and the housing market, we’ve noticed a lot of people calling the crisis line with anxiety, depression and sometimes suicidal ideation.”
Phillips’ research shows that the nationwide rise in midlife suicides began in 1999. The trend fluctuated for a few years but was well established by 2005, several years before the rocky economy began taking a financial and emotional toll on people of all ages.
Statistically, the increase in suicide is especially pronounced among white men in their early 50s who are unmarried and lack college education.
In general, according to the American Association of Suicidology, a national research group, men are more likely to kill themselves than women are, and the risk of suicide rises with alcohol and drug use. Rates are higher as well for veterans, including those from the Vietnam War era.
The risk also increases in conjunction with chronic illness – and new West Virginia University research shows that baby boomers in midlife already face higher levels of disability and chronic disease than their parents did.
Boomers, according to the study, are heavier and more sedentary than their elders were at the same age, more prone to have heart disease and diabetes, and more likely to use canes or other walking devices.
Living with pain can cause depression; so can learning of a new and devastating diagnosis. And depression can be a side effect of powerful medications, as well.
What’s more, said Phillips: “Maybe there’s a disjunction for this generation between what they expected in life and what happened.”
Sometimes, most disturbingly, there are no known risk factors. Liseanne Wick’s oldest brother killed himself at age 51 a decade ago. Her brother, a computer programmer who lived in Utah, seemed to lead a contented life.
“He was happily married, with a happy family, yet he still felt somehow that life wasn’t worth living,” said Wick, director of the 36-county Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services program run by WellSpace Health, a Sacramento-based health care provider.
His family doesn’t know what led to a moment of despair and desperation so profound that he didn’t reach out for help.
“It was one of those unexpected suicides we hear about,” said Wick. “It was quite a tragic loss.”
Suicides also spiked for baby boomers during their late teens and early 20s, and researchers have long known that members of the boomer generation experience higher rates of depression.
Again, theories for that vary. Was it because more baby boomers came from broken families? Were large numbers of them somehow scarred by coming of age in a time of societal turmoil?
“The reasons were never clear,” said Clayton of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “But depression is a recurrent illness through life. You can be well for years and get ill again.
“Researchers postulated 30 years ago that this group would have more suicides as they got older because of that.”
Whatever else might be going on in their lives, she said, more than 90 percent of people who die from suicide already have a diagnosed mental disorder of some sort.
The risk factors added up tragically for Michael Kelley, who was born the first year of the baby boom: When he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder more than a dozen years ago, his widow said, he was already a man in pain.
A talented artist, he had been grievously wounded in Vietnam. He turned to activism, raising funds to build the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the 1980s and helping other veterans.
“He was probably the most generous man I’d ever known in my life,” said Cathy Kelley, his second wife, whom he married in 1979. “If he loved you, he’d stand in front of a bus for you.
“But mental illness takes a lot away. And he already had post-traumatic stress disorder because of his wounds.”
Michael Kelley worked for the county until his retirement. A year before his death, he was diagnosed with heart problems and arthritis. He developed a palsy in his hands, so he couldn’t continue to draw. And even with medication for his bipolar condition, he suffered from delusions, his widow said.
“He was tortured for a long time,” she said. “He was very unhappy. I think it was too overwhelming for him to get well.
“He was in so much pain. I hope he is at peace now.”