The Link Between Marriage Rates and Suicide Is Questionable

The number of older men taking their own lives isn't going up, even though fewer and fewer of them are married.
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Does declining marriage explain rising suicide rates for old men, too? (Trick question.)

The reason it's a trick question is that, for older men suicide rates aren't rising—even though their marriage rates are falling. This doesn't fit the story spun by Brad Wilcox here at The Atlantic and broadcast by Ross Douthat in the New York Times.

The government reported this month that the suicide rate for adults ages 35 to 64 increased 28 percent from 1999 to 2010. That's a serious problem. Oddly, though, the report didn't include data on those over age 64 or under 35. Why? Because the rates didn't change significantly for those groups. That's a fine reason for the report to focus on the other groups, but the pontificators shouldn't let that blind them to the overall story (and longer trends).

The suicide rate for people age 65-plus dropped 5.9 percent during that period, but that was significant only at the 9 percent confidence level. In the longer run, though, the drop in suicide rates for older people is certainly significant. Here is the trend from 1991 to 2009 for men, by age:

cohen_suicide1.gif

From 1991 to 2009, the suicide rate among older men dropped more than 25 percent, from 40 to 29 per 100,000 people. During that time, suicide for middle-aged men dropped and then rose again, ending up within a point of where it started the period. So the two-decade story is not one of increasing middle-aged male suicide (at least not yet). And, of course, during that time marriage dropped for all three groups.

cohen_suicide2.jpg

Source: Current Population Surveydata from IPUMS.

The story of declining marriage causing increasing suicide, then, doesn't hold water. And yet Douthat quoted Wilcox's story and summarized:

That's exactly what we've seen happen lately among the middle-aged male population, whose suicide rates have climbed the fastest: a retreat from family obligations, from civic and religious participation, and from full-time paying work.

If he'd looked at the larger trend by age, maybe he wouldn't have written his next paragraph:

The hard question facing 21st-century America is whether this retreat from community can reverse itself, or whether an aging society dealing with structural unemployment and declining birth and marriage rates is simply destined to leave more people disconnected, anxious and alone.

For some reason our seniors just aren't getting the pro-suicide message, so they're not part of the story. In fact, neither are the 31 out of 35 wealthy countries that have seen falling suicide rates in the last several decades, even though every one has had falling marriage rates for decades.

Why not? Let me look more closely at that older age group of men, breaking them down into the younger-old (65-74) and the older-old (75-plus). The trend is clear for this group that has seen falling suicide rates: less marriage, more employment.

cohen_suicide3.jpg

Douthat and Wilcox could have said, "We love marriage, but in this case it looks like declining marriage isn't causing a big problem." But why should they? They have their story and they're sticking to it.

Of course, no sociologist is going to deny that married men usually have lower suicide rates—and I've written about it myself. But for older men, at least, that doesn't seem to be driving the trend for the last several decades. Rising employment rates are a good place to start for explaining declining suicide. And falling marriage—if it has been had an opposing effect—hasn't been as important.

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Philip Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes regularly at Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality and Social Change

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