Suicides among middle-aged Americans jump by nearly one-third

Noel and Tammy Cunningham
Noel and Tammy Cunningham

(CBS News) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that suicides are now the tenth-leading cause of death in the U.S. In 2010, more than 38,000 Americans took their own lives -- nearly 5,000 more than died in traffic accidents.

For 25 years, Noel Cunningham ran a successful restaurant in Denver and several charities. His wife Tammy says he was full of life.

"Noel was a huge, amazing personality," she says. "He was like a shooting star, he could make people feel as important as ever."

Tammy Cunningham
Tammy Cunningham
CBS News

Then, in December 2011, at the age of 62, Noel Cunningham committed suicide.

"There was some depression, but that had been off and on for a little bit, but I didn't think a whole lot of it," Tammy says. "He started to kind of close down a little bit with a lot of people."

The CDC reported that over the last decade, suicide among middle-aged people -- ages 35 to 64 -- jumped 28 percent.

Suicide rates increase dramatically among middle-aged Americans

The biggest increase among men occurred in their 50s, where rates jumped almost 50 percent. Among women, the greatest increase was in their 60s, rising nearly 60 percent.

Overall, men are still four times more likely to commit suicide than women.

Psychologist Kelly Posner
Psychologist Kelly Posner
CBS News

Psychologist Kelly Posner from Columbia University Medical Center says suicide has become a public health crisis.

"We've had recent economic downturns, the war is winding down, so we're seeing a lot more of an increase in veterans, who have 21 suicides per day," Posner says.

The report also noted a rise in intentional overdoses, associated with widespread access to prescription painkillers.

Below: Mental health experts urge people to practice psychological first aid.

"It's never one reason, but a combination of all of those reasons could absolutely be the reason behind this increase," Posner says.

This week, after one last dinner, Tammy closed her husband's restaurant. She's trying to leave unanswerable questions behind.

"I was stuck in that 'Why?' for a few months, and all it did was bring me down," she says. "There are so many pieces, if I focused on why, I wouldn't be able to go forward in my life."

The stigma of depression often prevents patients from seeking help. Dr. Posner says physicians need to be more active in screening patients for both depression and suicidal thoughts.

  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook

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