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Arizona sees steady rise in suicide rate among middle-aged men

PHOENIX — Arizona has had one of the nation’s highest rates of suicide in recent years, and while that rate has barely climbed for the state’s overall population one segment has seen a substantial increase: middle-aged men.

In 2002, the suicide rate for men ages 45 to 64 stood at 34.4 per 100,000. In 2012, that rate was 41.8 per 100,000, a 21.5 percent increase.

Among all Arizonans, the rate was 16.2 suicides per 100,000 in 2012, nearly the same as the 2002 rate of 15.9 per 100,000.

Christopher Kilmartin, a psychology professor at University of Mary Washington in Virginia, said that men of middle age and older experience changes like plateauing in careers and suffering from health problems. They grow up believing they shouldn’t discuss their emotions when these changes occur.

“The most common motive for suicide is to escape from your pain, so if you’ve got nowhere else to go to escape your pain or you think, ‘If I talk to my friend about it, he’ll see me as being unmanly, or if I ask for help it means I’m weak,'” Kilmartin said.

The economic recession that began in 2008 played a significant role in the increased rate of suicide among middle-aged men, who are usually lead providers in households, said Sally Spencer-Thomas, CEO & co-founder of the Carson J. Spencer Foundation in Colorado, an organization that aims to curb suicide.

“There were more acute unemployment situations,” Spencer Thomas said. “That often leads to family stress and maybe moving, or a divorce. There’s a domino effect.”

These economic factors can leave middle-aged men depressed, which is one reason a man may act on suicidal thoughts, according to Will Courtenay, author of “Dying to be Men.” He added that there’s a myth in society that men in general don’t get depressed, a notion that he said results in men not expressing their emotions.

“The myth that men don’t get depressed is so powerful that even trained, mental health clinicians are less likely to correctly diagnose depression in men than in women,” Courtenay said. “Consequently, men are less likely to receive treatment for their depression. Left untreated, a man’s depression will often worsen and can lead to suicide.”

For Arizona’s overall population, the rate of suicide among men has been several times higher than that among women.

Kilmartin said while men might have friends from activities such as sports or from work, most don’t have a friend who truly knows them.

“You’re on your own a lot more than the average person was 50 years ago, and the individual as a basis for self-esteem is a shaky foundation,” Kilmartin said. “When you feel like you’re a part of something and there’s people around you that are supportive of you, that’s very protective.”

Heather Brown, board of directors vice president for the Arizona Suicide Prevention Coalition, said the organization provides Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training that helps people identify the warning signs in others. The coalition also has a conference in early October in Phoenix that provides more information on suicide prevention training.

“Honestly, they don’t want to die,” Brown said. “They’re just looking for an end to the chronic pain.”

Ron French, adult services clinical director at Mohave Mental Health Clinic, suggests that people start reaching out to family and friends if they notice their loved ones becoming depressed or beginning to withdraw.

“We don’t want to be rude or impolite, but we need to keep an eye on them,” French said. “Let them know we’re their friend, and we care about them. If you tell me everything is OK and you’re feeling blue, I’ll honor that and I’ll pay a little bit more attention.”