Sisyphus Is Still Happy

4 May

Sisyphus Is HappyWhether it’s because of the Great Recession or a generational cohort’s particular perspective on “life”, Baby Boomers are committing suicide in alarmingly high numbers.

More people now die of suicide than in car accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which published the findings in Friday’s issue of its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. In 2010 there were 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle crashes and 38,364 suicides.


From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people, up from 13.7. Although suicide rates are growing among both middle-aged men and women, far more men take their own lives. The suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.

The most pronounced increases were seen among men in their 50s, a group in which suicide rates jumped by nearly 50 percent, to about 30 per 100,000. For women, the largest increase was seen in those ages 60 to 64, among whom rates increased by nearly 60 percent, to 7.0 per 100,000.

There also seems to be a racial component in the data. Additionally, men and women committed suicide differently.

Native Americans saw a shocking 65% increase in suicides, and non-Hispanic whites followed with a 40% increase.

Hanging and suffocation cases increased by just over 80%. Along with firearms, those remain a preferred method among men, while women use guns and poisoning to kill themselves.

Boomers’ attitudes toward suicide were always different from past generations, also, related to how Boomers challenged conceptions of individuality and society.

Dr. Arias noted that the higher suicide rates might be due to a series of life and financial circumstances that are unique to the baby boomer generation. Men and women in that age group are often coping with the stress of caring for aging parents while still providing financial and emotional support to adult children.

“Their lives are configured a little differently than it has been in the past for that age group,” Dr. Arias said. “It may not be that they are more sensitive or that they have a predisposition to suicide, but that they may be dealing with more.”

Preliminary research at Rutgers suggests that the risk for suicide is unlikely to abate for future generations. Changes in marriage, social isolation and family roles mean many of the pressures faced by baby boomers will continue in the next generation, Dr. Phillips said.

“The boomers had great expectations for what their life might look like, but I think perhaps it hasn’t panned out that way,” she said. “All these conditions the boomers are facing, future cohorts are going to be facing many of these conditions as well.”

Gen-X‘ers, beware! In 2004, there was an alarm about Gen X’ers and suicide. Why?

Reflecting on this question recently, suicide expert Professor Sven Silburn of the Curtin University of Technology said: “Something about their growing up and their formative years and the things that they’ve been exposed to as a generation has meant they’ve had higher overall rates of depression and that those rates are continuing.” He wondered if the huge workplace changes in recent decades might not have played a role.

I am sure they did, and that the fallout continues. But I am also aware that, for personal reasons, I may be guilty of wanting to blame anything and everything. The demise of community? Yes. The rise in individualism? Yes. The breakdown of family? Tick. The decline in religious belief? Yep. The boom in rampant consumerism? Absolutely.

Still, it is important, I think, that we are brave enough to put theories for the malaise out there, however bound up they might be with individual experience and personal grief. This is vital not only for the future wellbeing of generation X, but also for the generations that follow.

After all, teenage suicide might be down, but one need only listen to former Australian of the Year Fiona Stanley, and her research pointing to an epidemic of behavioural and emotional problems in young children, to appreciate that mental health is going to be one of the great challenges of this century.

For what it’s worth (and with the obvious caveat that there is never a single cause for any social problem), I do think the massive structural changes in the economy and the workplace in recent decades have exacted a heavy human toll – at the same time, paradoxically, as they have made Australia a materially wealthier country. Investments are up, serotonin levels are down.

It is surely not a coincidence that the countries that most fervently embraced individualistic, neo-liberal, market-dominated doctrines – Britain, the US, New Zealand, Australia – are the same countries that have faced crises of youth depression.

Fear and anxiety rose in the 1980s and ’90s as the implicit employment contract that had governed working lives for generations was broken. The changes hit everyone hard, including older workers who suddenly found that job loyalty no longer counted for much.

But for generation X, growing up and coming of age at this time of great change and uncertainty, and then attempting to enter the workforce during a recession, the fear and anxiety was internalised.

I wonder, now that boom and bust tendencies might multiply due to lower taxation and less redistribution through government spending and full employment policies, the “bad times” Boomers and Gen-X’ers have experienced repeatedly could become endemic for future generations. Will death just be the cost of doing business?

Generally, though, I would argue that a thought spent contemplating heaven is a thought wasted, that could best be spared for one another and how to soften boom and bust, or end inequality completely. Still, suicide will always be a fact in human existence.

There are many causes for a suicide, and generally the most obvious ones were not the most powerful. Rarely is suicide committed (yet the hypothesis is not excluded) through reflection. What sets off the crisis is almost always unverifiable. Newspapers often speak of “personal sorrows” or of “incurable illness.” These explanations are plausible. But one would have to know whether a friend of the desperate man had not that very day addressed him indifferently. He is the guilty one. For that is enough to precipitate all the rancors and all the boredom still in suspension.

But if it is hard to fix the precise instant, the subtle step when the mind opted for death, it is easier to deduce from the act itself the consequences it implies. In a sense, and as in melodrama, killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it. Let’s not go too far in such analogies, however, but rather return to everyday words. It is merely confessing that that “is not worth the trouble.” Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, the uselessness of suffering.

What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. All healthy men having thought of their own death, it can be seen, without further explanation, that there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death. . . .

Do I die, accept an illusive reality, or embrace the futility? I’m with Camus, that anything short of rebellion against the absurd is treason to humanity, and that those who commit suicide, although we should embrace them as siblings, to keep them from dying, are cheating the living and the dying of endless worlds of possibility. If there is no heaven, then humanity is not bound by custom and authority to the absurdity in this despicable world that harms us. Any god that condones it deserves banishment, or to be stoned through the streets like a wicked goat. In the end, we are the cause of our own death, because we are too scared to live.

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