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Shannon Neal can instantly tell you the best night of her life: Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2003, the Hinsdale Academy debutante ball. Her father, Steven Neal, a 54-year-old political columnist for The Chicago Sun-Times, was in his tux, white gloves and tie. “My dad walked me down and took a little bow,” she said, and then the two of them goofed it up on the dance floor as they laughed and laughed.

A few weeks later, Steven Neal parked his car in his garage, turned on the motor and waited until carbon monoxide filled the enclosed space and took his breath, and his life, away.

Later, his wife, Susan, would recall that he had just finished a new book, his seventh, and that “it took a lot out of him.” His medication was also taking a toll, putting him in the hospital overnight with worries about his heart.

Still, those who knew him were blindsided. “If I had just 30 seconds with him now,” Shannon Neal said of her father, “I would want all these answers.”

Steven Neal is part of an unusually large increase in suicides among middle-aged Americans in recent years. Just why thousands of men and women have crossed the line between enduring life’s burdens and surrendering to them is a painful question for their loved ones. But for officials, it is a surprising and baffling public health mystery.

A new five-year analysis of the nation’s death rates recently released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the suicide rate among 45-to-54-year-olds increased nearly 20 percent from 1999 to 2004, the latest year studied, far outpacing changes in nearly every other age group. (All figures are adjusted for population.)

For women 45 to 54, the rate leaped 31 percent. “That is certainly a break from trends of the past,” said Ann Haas, the research director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

By contrast, the suicide rate for 15-to-19-year-olds increased less than 2 percent during that five-year period — and decreased among people 65 and older.

The question is why. What happened in 1999 that caused the suicide rate to suddenly rise primarily for those in midlife? For health experts, it is like discovering the wreckage of a plane crash without finding the black box that recorded flight data just before the aircraft went down.

Experts say that the poignancy of a young death and higher suicide rates among the very old in the past have drawn the vast majority of news attention and prevention resources. For example, $82 million was devoted to youth suicide prevention programs in 2004, after the 21-year-old son of Sen. Gordon H. Smith, R-Ore., killed himself. Suicide in middle age, by comparison, is often seen as coming at the end of a long downhill slide, a problem of alcoholics and addicts, society’s losers.

“There a social-bias issue here,” said Dr. Eric C. Caine, co-director at the Center for the Study of Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester Medical Center, explaining why suicide in the middle years of life had not been extensively studied before.