A new study found that the suicide rate in the US is rising for the first time in ten years and the steepest rise appears to be among white middle aged women.

The study was carried out by co-author Dr Susan P Baker and other researchers from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, and is to be published in the December print issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Baker is a professor at the Center.

Baker and colleagues found that the 0.7 per cent increase in overall suicide rate in the US between 1999 and 2005 was mostly due to an increase in the annual suicide rate among white men (2.7 per cent) and women (3.9 per cent) aged 40 to 64.

Suicides among blacks on the other hand went down significantly over this period, and stayed stable among Asian and Native Americans.

For the study, Baker and colleagues analyzed data from mortality reports in the Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS), which records deaths by cause and intent of injury according to age, race, gender and state. The data originates from the annual records of the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Baker and colleagues also looked at how people had chosen to commit suicide. Firearms is still the most commonly used method, but their use has gone down over the period, while suicide by hanging or suffocation climbed significantly by 6.3 per cent a year among men and 2.3 per cent among women to account for 22 per cent of all suicides in 2005 and overtaking poisoning at 18 per cent.

Baker said in a press statement:

“The results underscore a change in the epidemiology of suicide, with middle-aged whites emerging as a new high-risk group.”

“Historically, suicide prevention programs have focused on groups considered to be at highest risk — teens and young adults of both genders as well as elderly white men,” said Baker, suggesting that:

“This research tells us we need to refocus our resources to develop prevention programs for men and women in their middle years.”

Baker and colleagues said the reasons for these changes in suicide rates are not clear. Some people might speculate that the reason is the so-called “mid- life crisis”, but Baker said some recent studies have also shown middle age to be a time of “relative security and emotional wellbeing”.

She said more research was needed to find out what social changes might be affecting middle aged people more than other groups in the US.

Some sources have suggested that perhaps abuse of prescription painkillers might be a factor. An article in Scientific American points to the rise in use of OxyContin which increases the risk of suicide by overdose.

Another reason might be the decreased use of hormone therapy following reports that it was linked to breast cancer; perhaps this caused more depression among women who came off the therapy or never took it up. The article also mentions experts suggesting it could be a post 9/11 effect, or an increase in suicides among vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Click here for American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Source: Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Scientific American.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD.