Boomers are killing themselves. Why?

Tuesday's front page of the Washington Post had a collection of interesting stories above the fold: "Justices uphold Md. law on DNA," "For Hezbollah, a risky engagement in Syria," a large and compelling photo of "Chaos in Turkey's streets," and "Why the sharp rise in suicides by boomers?" I'm not nearly so melancholy about the demise of the print news product as some I know, but this type of front page is what I love -- happening upon interesting stories you may not have sought out online on your own. The url for the last story about boomer suicides is "baby-boomers-are-killing-themselves-at-an-alarming-rate-begging-question-why" but the online headline was fixed. To beg the question is not to raise the question. From

"Begging the question" is a form of logical fallacy in which a statement or claim is assumed to be true without evidence other than the statement or claim itself. When one begs the question, the initial assumption of a statement is treated as already proven without any logic to show why the statement is true in the first place.

A journalistic example might be to use the term "marriage equality" to describe the debate over whether to change laws to cover same-sex couples or other groupings. The term might be fair if everyone agrees that marriage is about the union of any two or more people for any commitment. If some people argue that marriage is about the conjugal union of man and woman, the use of the term is unfair. To beg the question by using the term "marriage equality" is a logical fallacy that journalists shouldn't engage in. But the Washington Post story about boomer suicides simply raises and explores the question of "why" -- it does not beg any question.

And how it explores that question is by and large extremely well done. For instance, right up top:

There are no large-scale studies yet fleshing out the reasons behind the increase in boomer suicides. Part of it is likely tied to the recent economic downturn — financial recessions are in general associated with an uptick in suicides. But the trend started a decade before the 2008 recession, and psychologists and academics say it likely stems from a complex matrix of issues particular to a generation that vowed not to trust anyone older than 30 and who rocked out to lyrics such as, “I hope I die before I get old.”

It's informative without claiming to have more substantiation for these theories than are actually present. For instance:

“There was a sense of rebelliousness, of ‘I don’t want to live the way my parents did or their parents did,’?” said Patrick Arbore, director and founder of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention at San Francisco’s Institute on Aging. “There was a lot of movement to different parts of the country. With that came a lot of freedom, but there also came a loss of connections. It was not uncommon to see people married three or four times.”

How did a generation that started out with so much going for it end up so despondent in midlife? It could be that those very advantages made it harder to cope with setbacks, said Barry Jacobs, director of behavioral sciences at the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Pennsylvania.

“There was an illusion of choice — where people thought they’d be able to re-create themselves again and again,” he said. “These people feel a greater sense of disappointment because their expectations of leading glorious lives didn’t come to fruition.”

Instead, compared with their parents’ generation, boomers have higher rates of obesity, prescription and illicit drug abuse, alcoholism, divorce, depression and mental disorders. As they age, many add to that list chronic illness, disabilities and the strains of caring for their parents and for adult children who still depend on them financially.

Perhaps a little more adversity in youth could have helped prepare them for the inevitable indignities of aging, Knight suggested, adding that “the earlier-born cohorts are sort of tougher in the face of stress.” Despite the hardships of life in the first half of the 20th century, he said, older generations didn’t have the same kind of concept of being stressed out.

Older generations also had clearer milestones for success. “They won the Great War, they saved the world,” said David Jobes, a professor of psychology at Catholic University and a clinician at the Washington Psychological Center in Friendship Heights.

I love boomers, even if the one that gave birth to me tried to convince me last week that boomers "invented the long skirt." Someone needs to tell my mom that fashion history didn't begin in the early 1960s. But the Post sort of lets that admittedly harsh critique of boomers be openly discussed. As one correspondent put it:

Let's see... the most narcissistic, self-indulging, self-entitled generation in history, a generation raised on rebellion for rebellion's sake, the generation of sex-drugs-and rock n' roll, the generation that tossed church and faith and humility right out the window, the generation that embraced the quest for eternal youth like no other before it... this generation is now staring the truth of mortality right in the face. I'm shocked, shocked that so many are killing themselves.

Obviously that's about the harshest way to characterize the generation which also has many wonderful things to say for it. But the story doesn't do a bad job of fairly and gently discussing all of that. Again, as the child of boomers, I'm also aware that many of the criticisms of boomers apply merely to the more vocal subset of same. I mean, not everyone went to Woodstuck, joined New Age sex cults or dropped acid, right? And why do boomers have to bear the brunt of all the criticism. Someone raised that generation, right?

But even the uptick in suicides is, at worst, 30.7 men aged 50-54 per 100,000 and 7 women aged 60-64 per 100,000. It's wise not to blame everyone for the suicides of relatively few, as interesting as this story is.

But the correspondent identified the one thing that the story didn't -- religion! I was surprised that a story that touched on so very many other things wouldn't discuss religious adherence or practice, particularly in light of the role it plays in helping people fight some forms of mental illness or suicidal thoughts.

It's a major absence in an otherwise well-told story about an interesting and alarming statistic.

Image of boomers via Shutterstock.

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