A Middle-Aged Suicide

Andrew Solomon wrote recently about Robin Williams’ suicide. He mused about the unique features of this particular death:

“In public appearances, he never showed the callous narcissism of many actors; his work relied on the interplay between riotous extroversion and nuanced self-study. He played an alien so well because he was an alien in his own mind, permanently auditioning to be one of us. Suicide is a crime of loneliness, and adulated people can be frighteningly alone.” 

He also discussed suicide among the middle-aged:

“At one level, the suicide of young people is obviously more tragic than the suicide of older people; youths have more of life ahead of them, more of a chance to work things out. At another level, middle-aged suicide—the vanquishing of someone who has fought off the urge for decades—is especially catastrophic. It implies the defeated acknowledgment that if things aren’t better by now, they won’t be getting better. Robin Williams’s suicide was not the self-indulgent act of someone without enough fortitude to fight back against his own demons; it was, rather, an act of despair committed by someone who knew, rightly or wrongly, that such a fight could never be won.”

The CDC found that suicide rates increased substantially from 1999 to 2010 in adults between the ages of 35 and 64. The rate of increase was 28.4%. There was more of an increase for women (31.5%) than for men (27.3%), though the total number of suicides in this age group is still much higher for men (27.3 per 100,000) than women (8.1 per 100,000). Within the 35-to-64 age range, the greatest increases in suicide rates for men were among those 50-54 (49.4%) and 55-59 (47.8%). For women, the greatest increase was for those aged 60-64 (59.7%). The highest suicide rate is still in men over age 85. The rate among the elderly isn’t growing, though, whereas the rate among the middle-aged is.

What about Solomon’s description of middle-aged suicide—that “it implies the defeated acknowledgment that if things aren’t better by now, they won’t be getting better”? Every person is different, and no generalization fits every case. Nonetheless, in my experience as a psychologist, most people who are dealing with suicidal thoughts in middle age have had such thoughts for years. If they aren’t convinced that things will never get better, they at least dread that possibility. The thought of staggering through the rest of life bearing heavy emotional burdens often seems overwhelming.

One person in her 50s who has struggled throughout life with depression and periodic suicidal impulses told me that, when she heard of Robin Williams’ suicide, her first thought was that he was lucky that he didn’t have to deal with any more pain. She hasn’t had much depression recently, and was surprised by her own reaction. Years of struggle had taken their toll, though, and the idea of suicide still has considerable influence on her. I sometimes tell clients that at first suicidal thoughts seem like a friend, offering the promise that, if things get bad enough, death is always an option. However, such thoughts don’t remain friendly. Over the course of years, they come to torment, frequently intruding and threatening to take over during moments of weakness. I wonder if something of the sort happened with Robin Williams.

People with chronic suicidal thoughts tend not to tell others about them. It may be embarrassing to have such thoughts, or it may seem they are just a part of one’s life. I encourage anyone experiencing such thoughts to seek therapy–or, if you’re already in therapy, to talk to your therapist about the nature and extent of the thoughts you are having. When you aren’t making progress in straightening out the relationship you have with your own thoughts, it’s time to get some help.

Robin Williams in 2011. Photo by Walter McBride/Corbis

Robin Williams in 2011. Photo by Walter McBride/Corbis

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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