Suicide rates for middle-age people highest since 1998

As she and her son walked away from a wedding that day, she suddenly felt such sadness she started to cry.

For four days Rownd had left messages on her father’s answering machine. "Give me a call." "I love you." For four days, her messages went unanswered.

Rownd was visiting her mother in Canton when the call she'd been expecting finally came. As her mother spoke to her father's sister, Rownd walked out into the October coolness to clear her head.

“I knew it would be a lot worse for my mother because I already knew,” she said recently. “I just never thought it would be suicide.”

A neighbor had found Richard P. Krupa slumped inside his Chrysler LeBaron, dead from carbon monoxide poisoning.

He was 54, that age when increasing numbers of Americans, especially white men and women, are taking their own lives.

Indeed, experts say the number of middle-age people -- those ages 45 to 64 -- committing suicide is the highest it has been since 1998.

"We’ve been in a rising tide for at least the last six years,” said Dr. Steven Garlow, chief of psychiatry at Emory Hospital and chairman of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s metro Atlanta chapter. “Suicide has moved from the 11th- to the 10th-leading cause of death in this country. That’s not a good sign, and it speaks to something going wrong that we ignore at our peril.”

Rownd, 36, of Holly Springs, knew that her father had been depressed. The Vietnam vet's life seemed haunted by bad fortune -- an ill father, a new marriage that was in trouble, a job that was no longer fulfilling and no prospects in sight.

Still, his actions that 21st day of October took her by surprise and she still finds the note he left behind puzzling.

Krupa wrote that he didn't want to be a burden to anyone anymore.

“He was never a burden to me," Rownd said. "I think there was something dark going on inside of his head that he couldn’t talk to anyone about."

According to Garlow and other suicide experts, the typical middle-age suicide victim is a white male like Krupa. In fact, from about age 14 to 99,  white males kill themselves more often than both African-American women and men.

And whether black or white, Garlow said, suicide attempts result in death more often among men than women in part because men generally use more lethal means such as guns.

“That’s sort of the ongoing question,” Garlow said. Such things as the economy, job loss and a frayed social fabric can be “very provocative” to a man, he said -- especially middle-age men who equate their self-worth with being able to provide for their families.

“For some people death looks better when facing that kind of loss,” he said.

And why more whites than blacks?

“That’s another one of the great unknowns,” Garlow said.

Among African-Americans, a sense of belonging to family and religious practices might account for the lower suicide rates, Garlow said.

“I think that’s one of the real protective aspects of it,” he said. “It really takes things like lack of opportunity and hard times as causes off the table.”

In a report released Thursday, officials with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention said that while many of the leading causes of death are trending downward, suicide deaths have increased and account for nearly 100 deaths per day in the U.S.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate there were 36,035 reported suicides in 2008, the most recent year data is available, compared with 34,598 reported deaths in 2007. In Georgia, there were 997 reported suicides in 2007, compared with 923 in 2006. Numbers for 2008 are not yet available.

“We must take these most recent statistics as a national call to action to do more to prevent suicide, such as encouraging people to get treatment,” said Robert Gebbia, executive director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Gebbia said that 90 percent of those who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. Getting them into treatment can help, he said.

Although her father had moved from Cartersville to Indiana in 1995 to help take care of his ailing father, Rownd said she kept in touch with him almost daily by telephone.

She was an only child, "a daddy's girl."

He seemed a little down during their last conversation, but otherwise it was much like all the others, she said. They talked about the weather, his grandson and a possible move back to Georgia.

Richard Krupa, his daughter said, was an extremely talented man who could build or fix anything. He enjoyed playing musical instruments as much as he loved listening to them.

One of Rownd's fondest memories of her dad was riding to Cumberland Mall in his old LeBaron and listening to Connie Francis or Johann Strauss, then setting down for dinner at Piccadilly.

For the longest time after his death in 2000, she was angry because her father didn't say goodbye or stick around to teach his grandson how to do all the thing he could do.

Rownd, though, has finally let go of all the anger and instead remembers her father not in those final few minutes but in the collection of happy moments he shared with her.

And so we asked her, why she wanted to share a story that didn't end well?

"I want others to know that depression is real, but there are resources out there to help," Rownd said. "Every time I tell the story, it helps me and I know it helps others to hear it."

Resources for help:

24-hour crisis line: 1-800-715-4225

Question, Persuade and Refer Institute, offers comprehensive suicide prevention training programs, qprinstitute.com

Mental Health First Aid, supported by the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, thenationalcouncil.org

Warning signs

  • A sense of hopelessness that life isn’t worth living anymore
  • A recent trauma or crisis such as a loss of job or spouse
  • Changes in personality and/or appearance
  • Engaging in dangerous or harmful behavior such as unsafe sex, and increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Making preparations such as putting personal affairs in order
  • Withdrawal from friends and social activities

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