Robin Williams's Death Highlights the Growing Problem of Baby Boomer Depression


NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The passing of Robin Williams has been a kick in the gut to fans young and old. Those who grew up, or grew older, with him are feeling a sense of nostalgia – and perhaps a fresh twinge of mortality. Reports of Williams's battle with severe depression may come as little surprise to those who study the emotional effects of aging among Americans.

Claude Fischer, a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley has written about this phenomenon more than once. In a post on the Berkeley Blog last year, he said Baby Boomers tend to carry with them "the consequences of sharing a distinctive historical moment" -- the social turmoil of the '60s.

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"It appears that Americans – especially the men – born between roughly 1948 and 1960 have had a particularly hard time during their youth, or during their later adulthood, or during both with respect to drugs, marital problems, crime and unhappiness," Fischer wrote. "On suicide, in particular, some research suggests that the experience of crowding -- so many people, especially men, trying to squeeze through the same school doors and the same job openings in the same few years -- had lasting depressive effects ending in elevated rates of suicide even decades later."

Fischer says as Baby Boomers grow older, they may be encountering financial difficulties, loneliness and increasing bouts of depression.

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"There appears now to be a confluence of factors: the Baby Boomers are aging; an unusually high percentage of them had rocky youths that may still disturb them; some of them are now encountering the hard economic times of the Great Recession; and easy access to drugs on top of the easy access to guns is probably making those moments of despair too common and too easily acted upon," Fischer concluded.

In a report issued last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mortality data spanning from 1999 to 2010 revealed substantial increases in suicide rates among middle-aged adults in the United States.

"The results of this analysis indicated that the annual, age-adjusted suicide rate among persons aged 35–64 years increased 28.4%, from 13.7 per 100,000 population in 1999 to 17.6 in 2010," the CDC reported.

The trend was particularly acute among Baby Boomers.

"Among men, the greatest increases were among those aged 50–54 years and 55–59 years, (49.4%, from 20.6 to 30.7, and 47.8%, from 20.3 to 30.0, respectively)," the CDC noted. "Among women, suicide rates increased with age, and the largest percentage increase in suicide rate was observed among women aged 60–64 years (59.7%, from 4.4 to 7.0)."

Patrick Arbore, EdD, director of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention in San Francisco, says that disorders related to depression are the leading mental health issues facing older Americans.

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"Although it is estimated that approximately 2 million older people are experiencing depression right now, sadly, most of those people will not be recognized as having depression," he told Everyday Health. "So it's hard to treat a condition if it's never recognized. The issue is we tend in our society, because of ageism, to think of depression and older age as being synonymous. So we don't see that the older person may or may not have depression. That's a problem that has to be rectified. Sadly, mental health issues in older adults still carry a stigma, and that stigma contributes to the lack of recognition of depression and other mental health issues in older adults."

--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet

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