What's Driving the Rise in Suicide Among Middle-Aged Men?

It's worth looking at the connection between unemployment, singleness, and suicide.

The new suicide statistics for middle-aged American men, which show a marked rise in suicide for middle-aged men (and women), belie the myth of The Lone Ranger. Men don't thrive as rugged individualists making their mark on the frontier. In fact, men seem to be much more likely to end up killing themselves if they don't have traditional support systems.

The suicide stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that middle-aged men (35 to 64) living in the American West are more likely to commit suicide than men living elsewhere in the United States, and that suicide has risen fastest over the last decade in a Western state, Wyoming, as Richard Florida pointed out here last week.

The geographic caste of suicide underlines the communitarian argument made by Emile Durkheim in his classic work, Suicide. Durkheim stressed that men (note that men kill themselves at much higher rates than do women) are more likely to commit suicide when they get disconnected from society's core institutions (e.g., marriage, religion) or when their economic prospects take a dive (e.g., unemployment). So, men are more likely to thrive and survive when they have a job, a wife, and a community connection to a church or some other group that grounds their lives.

And over the last two decades, it's men without college degrees who have ended up most disconnected from the core institutions of work, marriage, and civil society. Guess who is most likely to kill themselves? Men without college degrees. In fact, according to recent research by sociologist Julie Phillips and her colleagues, suicide has surged in recent years (this research covers the period up to 2005) among precisely this group of less-educated middle-aged men, even as suicide remained essentially stable among middle-aged men with college degrees over this period.

Source: Current Population Survey, 1990-2010

Take work. The chart above indicates that middle-aged men without college degrees are about twice as likely to have recently experienced spells of unemployment. Given that one study found that unemployed men were 126 percent more likely to kill themselves, the deteriorating economic fortunes of poor and working-class men have likely played a key role in the recent spike in suicide among middle-aged men without college degrees.

Or take marriage. The chart below indicates that middle-aged men without college degrees are much less likely to be married than their college-educated peers, either because they got divorced or never married in the first place. This matters because Phillips' work indicates that unmarried men are about 240 percent more likely to kill themselves, compared to their married peers. Thus, in all likelihood, the nation's dramatic retreat from marriage among less-educated men in recent years has also had a hand in rising rates of suicide among this group of men.

Source: Current Population Survey, 1990-2010

So, as experts trot out their pet theories to explain the recent rise in suicide among middle-aged American men, it's worth keeping in mind that suicide is highest, and climbing fastest, among precisely those men whose ties to the larger social fabric—and to work and women, in particular—have become the most attenuated.

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W. Bradford Wilcox is the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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