KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Barry Allen was 53, drunk and quarrelsome the night he took his own life with a quick gunshot blast upstairs in his Harrisonville, Mo., home.
Nancy Wolfe of Leawood, Kan., was 55 when, quite calmly, she asked her longtime companion for one more hug before he set out for work on a December morning in 2009. Wolfe’s body was found hours later on the bed, an empty bottle of antidepressants nearby.
Allen and Wolfe had nothing in common — other than being of the same generation. But by taking their own lives, they share a statistical place in a grim pattern of data putting baby boomers at the head of all age groups in death by suicide.
More than today’s teenagers, more than the elderly, a struggling slice of the 76 million Americans born between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s is showing a willingness to kill themselves. Some experts say that generation has always been more prone than others to self-destruction.
Now their vulnerability is alarming.
“We don’t automatically think of people of that age giving up,” said Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist at Crozer-Keystone Health System in Pennsylvania.
Beginning around 2008, as the nation’s economy slid into recession, the suicide rates of adults between ages 45 and 64 surpassed rates for people older than 85 — and far beyond suicide numbers for teens and young adults — and led all age brackets, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For people in their prime wage-earning years, history reveals “an association between suicide rates and economic expansion or contraction,” said the CDC’s Alex Crosby, an epidemiologist. Rates of suicide tend to rise in a financial downturn only for those in midlife, he said, “not for those over 65, and not for those under 25.”
Experts say job loss, home loss and flat-line incomes aren’t the only factors driving up suicides among baby boomers. Chronic diseases, alcohol abuse, the splintering of relationships and a reliance on painkillers also come into play.
Some contend a generation that started out with lofty goals always has been dogged by conditions that signal distress, posting through the decades unprecedented rates of depression, divorce and eating disorders.
Tracking suicide over the years is problematic because cases in the past are known to have been grossly under-reported. But some studies suggest suicide was more common for even young adult boomers than it was for their parents at the same age.
“This particular group of people now in their middle years has had higher rates of suicide all the way through” their lives, said Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “The question becomes, is there something unique about this group or is it something about middle age right now?”
Rutgers University sociologist Julie Phillips has compared suicide rates among baby boomers to other age groups dating as far back as 1935. Her research found that the boomers have had “notably high” suicide rates across their life span, beginning in their teens.
Why that is, experts can only speculate.
If baby boomers grew up in an age of idealism, “the current reality may not be fitting what many of them wanted life to be or what they believed it should be,” said Sherry Danner, a clinical therapist and director of counseling at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood.
Their kids are grown and on their own. Their parents may have passed. Danner also cited “skyrocketing” divorce rates among boomers in the past decade.
Often, she said, those contemplating suicide feel alone and, if they have lost jobs, unable to contribute, or simply “a burden.”
She added: “When people ask what’s a key risk factor, I think one is perfectionism.”
The 45-to-64 age group in recent years has committed about 18 suicides for every 100,000 people within that demographic.
The overall national average in 2011, the latest year for which nationwide figures are available, stood at about 12 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people.
More recent data out of Missouri and Kansas reflect the grim trends among boomers. In 2012, Missouri suicides among people age 45 to 64 hovered above 20 per 100,000 people.
Kansas charted a stunning 31 percent jump in suicides overall in 2012, and more than a third were carried out by people between the ages of 45 and 64.
Locally and nationwide, the spikes in suicides among baby boomers are sharpest among white people, mostly male but also female.
In suburban Johnson County, Mo., where the number of suicides overall has tripled since 2007, clinical social worker Bill Art has seen a surge of desperate clients whose well-paying jobs came to a sudden end.
“Things really got worse when the economy tanked,” said Art, a suicide prevention advocate who serves on the Governor’s Behavioral Health Services Planning Council in Kansas. “If you’ve worked in the same career for 20, 30 years, your whole life is that. And when you lose the job, you may feel your whole life has ended.”
Yet no single factor dictates suicide rates, and when a person dies by suicide, family members often are at a loss to identify the reasons.
“Barry never got a confirmed diagnosis of depression,” said Allen’s wife of 16 years, Caroline Allen. “But he suffered from anxiety and had extreme mood swings” that would worsen when he abused alcohol and drugs.
When doctors would ask Barry Allen if he was depressed or considering suicide, he would say, “I have been in the past. I’m not now.”
Only after his suicide in 2010 would Caroline Allen recognize such comments as a tipoff to his desperation, both a denial and an admission.
There were other clues, she said. He suffered a head injury as a truck driver and went on disability. And despite the couple losing ownership of their home and filing for bankruptcy, Barry Allen would use credit cards to buy motorcycles and other expensive things, but he scrimped on spending on his health.
He’d ask his wife “Why did you marry me?” and gripe about being a burden to her.
She suffered a heart attack a month before he took his life. He told friends she was dying. He spiraled into heavy drinking.
“Even if I were able to stop my husband” the night the gun went off in the bedroom, Caroline Allen said, “at some point, I think now, it would have happened.”
Wolfe had tried to kill herself two other times with wine and pills, said companion Oscar Polk.
Her father, the only parent she really knew, died in 1999. A few years later, foot surgery left Wolfe in severe pain “and she was on pain medication from that day on for the rest of her life,” Polk said.
The fatal triggers were set in the fall of 2009 when Wolfe landed work at a clothing store after a year of unemployment. She was expecting long and fruitful days serving holiday shoppers, but after disappointing sales on Black Friday, the store cut back her hours.
“She came home just crushed,” Polk said. “I found her sitting in a dark room with a box of Kleenex that was empty.”
Whether her death could have been avoided by changing her medications, which included the painkiller OxyContin, Polk can’t know for sure. Wolfe took her life three weeks before that Christmas.
Physical pain and chronic illness are common themes in midlife suicides. Harkavy-Friedman noted that science has advanced to allow Americans with heart disease, diabetes and hypertension to live well beyond their 50s, whereas sufferers in an earlier time might have died before ailments would drive them to kill themselves.
For baby boomer Rob Souza, the pain of a rare and incurable intestinal condition could be endured no longer.
Surgery did little to relieve a condition that would render Souza, of Overland Park, Kan., bedridden, unable to eat and reeling from cluster headaches.
“He hung on until his kids were late in their teens,” said his father, retired University of Kansas professor Ray Souza. He and his wife lost their son to a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2007, when Rob Souza was 46.
The couple’s other son, Rick Souza, assured his parents at the time that he’d never do such a hurtful thing to them.
But he killed himself three years later at age 50.
Rick was healthy in body, but his crippling nemesis may have been the stress of his work, Ray Souza said. Rick Souza had served in the Navy for more than a decade, working in a nuclear submarine.
Later in civilian life, he installed and maintained sophisticated X-ray machines at medical facilities. He’d drive 100,000 miles a year. A long-term relationship went south and, just months before his suicide, Rick Souza labored through a grueling assignment installing technology at a hospital in Savannah, Ga.
“Unfortunately, in a way, he was excellent at what he did and always got all the tough jobs,” Ray Souza said. “He was really dedicated. I told him he needed to push back and not do all this extra stuff.”
Depression and anxiety set in, enough for Rick Souza to write in his suicide note: “This sadness never ends. I have to kill this pain.”
Before he pointed a gun barrel to his heart, Rick Souza called his parents, among others, and hung up before talking. His parents saw his number appear on their phones, but nobody was on the line.
His father later recognized, “He was letting us know that in his moment of deep dispair, he hadn’t forgotten us.”
Heed the signs
Across the age spectrum, the warning signs of suicide do reveal themselves upon reflection, experts say: disconnection, substance abuse, sense of loneliness, feeling like “a burden.”
But baby boomers face the additional problem of people around them thinking they’ll be OK; they’ve come this far in life.
“We’ve definitely developed more suicide prevention programs aimed at youth,” said Crosby of the CDC. “There are programs (emphasizing) people over 65” and services tailored for war veterans.
“There are not as many programs specific to working, middle-aged adults,” he said. “But groups are moving in that direction.”
For now, area support group leaders such as Marcia Epstein suggest that you not mince words when dealing with anyone on the verge.
Asking a boomer “Are you OK?” probably will elicit a pat response: “Yeah, I’m cool.”
Don’t be afraid to ask instead, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”