DAYTON: Keith Wildermuth was the life of the party until the day that he became part of a grim statistic — the growing trend of baby boomer suicides.
A new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a 50 percent increase in suicides among men in their 50s. The same study showed that 2009 — the year of Wildermuth’s death — was the first year in which deaths by suicide surpassed deaths by car crashes.
On Nov. 16, 2009, Wildermuth, 52, put a gun to his head inside his van parked in Kettering’s Iron Horse Park. The shooting followed several unsuccessful suicide attempts, including an overdose of muscle relaxants the previous February.
“People say a suicide attempt is just a cry for help,” said his widow, Barb Wildermuth of Kettering. “Well, yes, it is. Help them.”
The CDC’s report is causing suicide prevention experts to rethink their emphasis on outreach to young adults and the elderly.
“This means there’s virtually no age group that isn’t at risk,” said Ryan Peirson, a psychiatrist and chief clinical officer for the ADAMHS Board of Montgomery County. “We can’t rely on the old chestnut about young people being more impulsive and older people dealing with pain and medical issues and lots of loss. There’s now a high and equally scary number for all age groups.”
The greatest increases were seen among men in their 50s, whose rate went up by nearly 50 percent to 30 suicides per 100,000 men, compared with 20 per 100,000 in 1999. The suicide rate for women in their early 60s rose by nearly 60 percent while remaining relatively low compared with men, at seven suicides in 100,000. In 2010, the latest year for which figures are available, 38,364 suicide deaths were recorded in the United States, compared with 33,687 motor vehicle deaths.
“We just don’t know the reason this is happening, but the numbers are increasing at a time when boomers are taking hits to their good retirement accounts and those things we used to call pensions,” said Peirson of baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964.
The CDC report’s co-author, Dr. Thomas Simon, said there are several possible explanations for the rise in boomer suicides, including the economy and the quadrupling of prescription painkiller abuse since 1999. “Working-age adults are most vulnerable,” said Simon, a researcher with the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “The baby boomer generation historically had higher suicide rates than earlier generations. Now they’re facing financial challenges and the stressors of being caregivers for aging parents.”
Peirson cited growing social isolation in an increasingly mobile, Internet-focused society. “Attendance at church is down and so is membership in clubs,” he said. “Nothing is a substitute for human interaction.”
Tricia Marks, president and CEO of Dayton’s Suicide Prevention Center, said she has seen a huge increase in calls from baby boomers on the suicide prevention hotline. While the loss of a relationship is a leading cause of suicide among teens and college students, the loss of livelihood is one of the leading causes for middle-aged men, she said.
“When men lose their jobs, sometimes they question who they are,” Marks said. “All too often we hear men who say my family would be better off with my life insurance.”
Firearms remain the most common method of suicide for both men and women, but the CDC report showed an 81 percent increase in deaths by hanging and suffocation since 1999 as well as a 24 percent rise in poisoning deaths.
Each suicide is as unique and complex as each individual, each family.
Kathy Turner of Jamestown lost her father to suicide in 2009, after he lost his job as a computer salesman. “He tried to get a job anywhere, but nobody would hire a 60-year-old man,” she said. “His self-esteem was affected, and he felt worthless.”
Lynda Dilgard was filing for bankruptcy at the time she took her own life. She had been a successful Web designer who helped to design the website Cars.com. She was making more money than her college professor parents combined. But severe depression took its toll on her career.
“She was out of work for more than two years before she died,” said her sister, Leigh Ann Fulford of Oakwood.
As with many suicides, underlying circumstances played a role. After years of making poor judgments about men, Fulford said, “[Dilgard] had a wonderful boyfriend who was shot in a rampage by this man who killed four people. It impressed me how long she did stay alive, but she finally decided she couldn’t keep living for other people.”
Wildermuth also was in bankruptcy at the time of his suicide and he too was burdened by an unthinkable tragedy. In 1998, his 13-year-old daughter accidentally shot and killed her 16-year-old brother, Jeremy, with a gun Wildermuth had bought for their protection after a neighborhood incident.
Several years later, Wildermuth seemed back to his old self to all but his widow.
Barb Wildermuth married her husband six years before his death. There were deepening financial problems stemming from the failure of his flooring installation business, K&G Carpet, and the family tragedy that never left him.
“He grew up in a time where the father is the ruler of the house, and a man is a man, and he had trouble with my being the breadwinner,” she said.
Starting a business with his surviving son, Josh, had been a lifelong dream that helped Wildermuth to heal after Jeremy’s death. “When his business life took a bad turn, he couldn’t handle it,” Barb said.
In late October, Keith had been hospitalized after an overexposure to paint fumes that was treated as an accident. Because of his previous suicide attempts, she said she asked for a psychiatric evaluation, but was told “he was fine.”
Three weeks later, on Nov. 16, 2009, Keith woke up in good spirits. Barb, usually fearful to leave him alone, felt fine about going to work that day. It wasn’t until afterward that she realized Keith had said goodbye to her — twice. “Now I know that being cheerful on the day of a suicide attempt is very common; they are at peace because they have made up their minds,” she said.
His body was found later that night, family photos scattered near the body. The van he was in was from his days at K&G Carpet.
Like most suicide survivors, Barb was wracked with guilt. She remembered a conversation shortly before his death in which she told him, “I don’t know how much longer we can do this.” In her mind, that meant she needed stress relief. In Keith’s mind, she fears, the remark translated into her wanting out of their six-year marriage. “His fear was that I wouldn’t stay with him because he was nothing,” she said. “I stayed because I loved him.”
It was hard not to take Keith’s suicide as a form of rejection. “Yet he was in such physical and emotional pain, he felt there were no other options,” Barb said. “He felt that he had lost everything.”