Why the Baby Boomer Generation Presents a Unique Risk for Suicide
After experiencing the prominence of boomer suicide in his own life, journalist Don Gillmor investigates why his generation is at such an increased risk. Photo: kupicoo/Getty Images
Thursday, January 28, 2021, is Bell Let’s Talk Day — an opportunity for Canadians across to discuss important issues surrounding mental health. With that in mind, we revisit this feature story from the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of Zoomer magazine, in which award-winning journalist Don Gillmor opens up about loved ones who’ve taken their own lives and explores why suicide is so pervasive within the boomer generation.
On a warm August evening, I attended a book launch for a woman who’d written candidly about her suicide attempts. After the launch, I went to a memorial for an old friend I’d lost touch with, a brilliant jazz guitarist named Robert, who’d taken his own life. My brother David, also a musician, took his life 14 years ago. Since his death, four friends have killed themselves. Suicide is a recurrent theme in my life, but I’m not alone.
There were 4,157 suicides in Canada in 2017. The highest risk age bracket is 50 to 59, which is more than twice the teen suicide rates. Middle age used to be the safe zone for suicide; rates were highest for the young and the old. Now middle age is the most dangerous time. As boomers become genuinely old, when no amount of yoga or Botox or farewell tours by The Who can convince us otherwise, what will happen?
I talked to Julie Phillips, a Rutgers professor of sociology who studies middle-aged suicide, who said the current elevated suicide rate in middle age doesn’t bode well for the future. “The concern is that as those middle-aged people move into old age, where suicide rates are typically higher for men at least, we may see them get higher still,” Phillips said. One of the unsettling aspects of boomer suicide statistics is that we’ve always had high rates. In the 1970s, we had a rate that was more than double that of our parents at that age. Our rates are higher than our parents’ generation, but they are also higher than the generations that have come after us.
“Boomers may have a unique risk that they carry with them through the course of their lives,” Phillips said.
Robert was 66 when he took his life on Rabbit Island, off mainland Cambodia. I met him in Toronto in the 1980s, and I would go to small bars downtown where he played. He looked like a jazz musician, tall, lean, goateed, a languid man with oversized hands and spatulate fingers that glided magically along his fretboard. He sometimes closed his eyes while playing, lost in the music. He was initially self-taught, then trained at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, a virtuoso guitarist who composed his own cutting-edge, not always wildly accessible, music. I lost touch with him 20 years ago. He was in his mid-40s then, driving a cab, living above a camera store on Queen Street in Toronto, drifting a bit. He was still involved in music, but it wasn’t paying the bills.
At the memorial, his life was pieced together by friends and family. For the last 17 years, he’d been musical director for a cruise ship line, choosing the music, hiring musicians, writing and playing onstage. After a long succession of lovely women he’d inexplicably left, he finally married at the age of 60 to a woman half his age. He had to convert to Islam to marry her, then he left her as well. Most recently, he’d been with a Russian pianist. He was in sporadic touch with his family, was drinking quite a bit. He had also developed Dupuytren’s contracture, a debilitating condition that was turning his right hand into an arthritic claw. He was broke.
On June 10, 2019, he sent his sister a heartbreaking voice mail. He said he’d come to Cambodia for a vacation and to look for work. The cruise ship gig had ended. Work opportunities were thin, he said, but that was the least of his problems. His right hand was crippled, and his left was worsening. “I can’t play professionally,” he said, in his distinct voice, a philosophical tone, the vowels extended slightly. “I knew that at the end of March. It’s over. You play for people for years, and that’s taken away. I’m kind of done. I finished my work. In the very early days of April, it just came to me that I should take the steps to move along and end my life here. Something is happening on the other side. Let’s find out what it is. I’ll be one of the next people.”
He said his body had been showing signs of Lewy body dementia, which his father had had. It was what Robin Williams had, though it was only discovered during the autopsy after he hung himself. The symptoms include depression, paranoia and confusion, as well as mobility issues. Robert was already having trouble negotiating stairs.
“I’m just tired,” he said in the message. “I’m just tired.” He’d sent his guitar to his sister. “I won’t ever play it again. I mean even if I stayed alive, I wouldn’t play it again.” There was a rueful laugh in his voice, then, “I can’t play. That’s the point.”
He was music. Steeped in it, knowledgeable about history and players and styles. There were expressions other than playing – composing and teaching, both of which he’d done, or writing about it, which he had considered. But his connection was visceral; it flowed through those fingers.
His sister was distraught; he was halfway across the world, and she could only reach him by cellphone. They had a few conversations, and she tried to talk him into staying alive. From day to day, she didn’t know if he was gone. He finally took his life on June 26.
After his death, there were photographs of him on Facebook. He looked almost unchanged from 20 years ago, the distinctive black curly hair greying now, a half-smile for the camera. When he was drinking, there was an occasional glimpse of a darkness that lay buried inside, but in the photographs there was still something of the little boy in his face.
Fiedrich Nietzsche said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” But the people who give us that music don’t always fare well. A study conducted by the University of Sydney looked at 13,195 musicians who had died between 1950 and 2014. What they found was that these musicians had a lifespan that was an alarming 25 years shorter than the general population and a suicide rate that was three times higher. The study stated, “Popular musicians as an occupational group are highly vulnerable to the vagaries of their workplaces and their inherent personal vulnerabilities.”
“Inherent personal vulnerabilities” refers, in part, to drugs and alcohol, both of which are occupational hazards. Robert flirted with both throughout his life and was sometimes clean, sometimes struggling. Like many musicians, he was economically vulnerable; it isn’t a profession that comes with a brilliantly funded pension plan.
My brother David’s story mirrors Robert’s in many ways: talented men who found themselves stranded in middle age, struggling financially. A friend of my brother’s once said that music was the only relationship in David’s life that was trouble-free. I suspect it was the same with Robert but, near the end, it became the most troubling.
The question that follows so many suicides is: why? This simple question followed the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. Why would Bourdain, a financially secure celebrity who was living his passion take his life at the age of 61? Why did Spade, 55, an iconic designer, take her life? We ask the question of individuals and struggle to find an answer, and now the question is being asked of an entire generation.
There are several reasons listed in the sociological literature when it comes to boomer suicide. We were a communal generation – we marched, campaigned, came together in our thousands to hear music. We are less communal now. We are losing parents and watching our children move out. Our divorce rates are the highest in history. While divorce rates in general have declined over the last two decades, they have doubled for those between 55 and 64 years old and tripled for those over 65. Our peers are starting to die, claimed by the statistical perils that await – cancer, diabetes, heart ailments. Families are spread across the country. We are increasingly isolated.
We tore down traditional structures – church attendance plummeted as did marriages, corporations became the enemy rather than a career. We toppled the institutions that had sustained our parents and were seen by us as constraints. What we created in their place was an unprecedented freedom and the triumph of the individual. And this is fine as long as the individual is fine.
We remain medicated, though the medications aren’t as fun as they once were. Sixty-five per cent of Canadians between the ages of 40 and 79 reported using at least one prescription drug in the previous 30 days. Almost 19 per cent use five or more. Our per capita spending on pharmaceutical drugs is the third highest in the world, behind the U.S. and Switzerland and, given the high cost Americans are paying (the highest in the world), we may be No. 2 in actual consumption.
And there is the issue of money. During the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, those between the ages of 50 and 65 were hit hard economically. And this is an age when it’s difficult to make up lost ground, financially. Jobs of any kind are less secure, and we are being shunted aside (finally) by tech-savvy millennials. In a follow-up study to her original research on boomer suicide, Julie Phillips and her colleague Katherine A. Hempstead looked at whether recent suicides were due to personal (mental/physical health), interpersonal (divorce, for example) or external (economic and political) circumstances. External was the one that showed the biggest increase. The arrival of COVID-19, bringing isolation and economic devastation, was an extreme external circumstance. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention in the U.S. said, “We’re seeing, sadly, far greater suicides now than we are deaths from COVID.”
There are conflicting reports on just how happy-unhappy boomers are. The Happiness Index, a survey of Canadians conducted by Leger, stated that people over the age of 55 reported the highest degree of happiness (61 per cent). At the same time, three decades of data from the General Social Survey, a sociological survey created by the University of Chicago, said boomers had experienced less happiness than both older and younger generations. This seems odd, given our determined search for happiness. But happiness is a broad, unscientific concept. One of the things it is measured against is expectation. Those happy respondents in the Happiness Index reported that they were living the life they imagined. As a generation, we imagined a lot. And we wanted so much. So much change, so much sex, so much love. And now we want money and youth. We won’t be younger or richer than we are now. And for many, it isn’t enough.
In his book Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, novelist Robert Stone, who rode on Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus, wrote, “Our expectations were too high, our demands excessive; things were harder than expected … We wanted it all; sometimes we confused self-destructiveness with virtue and talent, obliteration with ecstasy, heedlessness with courage …. We wanted to die well every single day, to be a cool guy and a good-looking corpse. How absurd because nothing is free, and we had to learn that at last. Every generation must.”
The pervasiveness of suicide extends beyond the number of deaths. In Canada, there are between 25 and 30 attempts for every completed suicide, five of which result in hospitalization. That means as many as 123,000 suicide attempts in a year, with almost 21,000 hospitalizations. And because suicide is under-reported (some sociologists estimate by 60 per cent), the actual numbers may be significantly larger. There is another number, listed on Statistics Canada’s website, that speaks to the unique nature of suicide; for every death. “there are seven to 10 people profoundly affected by suicide loss.”
Any death affects survivors and loved ones, but suicide carries a special grief. There is the sense, sometimes misguided, that we could have done something. Suicide kills more people than prostate cancer or drunk drivers and only slightly fewer than breast cancer, which had about 5,000 deaths in 2017. All of these have effective campaigns that have raised awareness and hundreds of millions of dollars for detection and prevention. Breast cancer mortality has dropped 44 per cent since its peak in 1986. In the same period, suicide rates have gone up. Suicide isn’t a government priority; Canada was one of the last Western nations to implement a national prevention strategy. Even then, it wasn’t funded – more gesture than policy. The most comprehensive suicide agency is the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, which is funded entirely by donations.
There are several reasons that suicide hasn’t had the kind of attention other scourges get. It is a complex subject that embodies personal, societal and economic factors. It is an outcome. And it hasn’t found its poster child; anyone famous who has survived an attempt is wary about sharing that information. There remains a stigma, slowly being eroded but stubborn. And those celebrities who were successful sometimes become iconic rather than cautionary tales (Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain). We are slowly moving toward a greater understanding of suicide, dragging it out into the light at least.
I’ve had a very good life,” Robert said in his voice mail to his sister, “and a very interesting life.”
It was certainly a varied life. He’d been both a math and musical prodigy, had travelled extensively. He’d played with Liza Minelli and Holly Cole. He’d lived in Paris with a beautiful woman, lived in the suburbs, in elegant apartments, dives and flophouse hotels, then spent more than a decade on cruise ships. That succession of lovely women. He ran a grow-op, wrote music, played on a hundred stages. He would expound on Ornette Coleman’s phrasing, the difference between Hendrix and Clapton, the rhythmic seduction of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” He had the intellectual curiosity and clarity of a natural teacher. I’d taken guitar lessons from him, though never got much past the camp counsellor level.
At his memorial, people had different versions of Robert, sometimes different versions of the same story. He had a gift for compartmentalization. An international man of mystery. The voice mail he’d sent his sister was numbered – No. 20. His oldest friend, a math professor in Calgary, received No. 21. So there may be 21 or more suicide notes, all delivered in his distinctive voice, articulate and flowing, free of hesitations or tics, explaining his decision. He had been living with the idea of his own death for three months and, in his messages, he inhabited that death, honing it, convincing himself. He probably recorded those voice mails over a period of several days, in a rented hut on Rabbit Island. It’s a tiny island – two square kilometres. You could walk across it in 20 minutes. The weather is glorious, the beaches pristine. It looks like paradise. He swallowed the pills that had been sitting in his room and walked into the jungle. A few days later police circulated a photograph of Robert, lying peacefully in tall grass as if he was asleep, nicely dressed, his crippled hands crossed over his chest. They wanted to know if anyone knew him. I wonder if any of us did.
A version of this article appeared in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue on p. 64.