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 7 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 downturn in the economy and the quadrupling of prescription painkiller abuse since 1999. “Working-age adults are most vulnerable,” said Simon, a reasearcher 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 also 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. “We’re not able to answer with certainty the cause of the increase,” Simon said.
Kathy Turner of Jamestown lost her father to suicide in 2009, after losing 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. At one point, it was a source of family mirth that she was making more money than her college-professor parents combined. But severe depression took its toll on her once-flourishing career. “She was out of work for more than two years before she died,” said her sister, Leigh Ann Fulford of Oakwood. “She killed herself the day she was supposed to go to bankruptcy court.”
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 an incident in the neighborhood.
Several years after the tragedy, Wildermuth seemed back to his old self to all but his widow, who said, “He never really dealt with his son’s death.”
‘A man is a man’
Barb Wildermuth married her husband six years before his death. There were deepening financial problems stemming from the failure of his flooring installation businee, K&G Carpet, and the family tragedy that she said 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 Wildemuth to heal after Jeremy’s death. “When his business life took a bad turn, he couldn’t handle it,” Barb said. “He was very much a people person, an outgoing, happy-go-lucky guy. He had the demeanor of having no problems, and he couldn’t reconcile those two things in his mind.”
Kelly Clausing, 22, Barb’s daughter, observed, “He didn’t let anyone but us see that he was down.” Added Barb: “The minute he left the house, the ‘Keith face’ went on. It’s harder for someone like that to get help.”
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 the morning of 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.
Barb had tried to get hold of her husband while at work but really became alarmed when she got home and he wasn’t there. “I knew he would be in a park, and I hit every park except the one he was in,” 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 be angry, not to take Keith’s suicide as a form of personal 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.”
Kathy Turner, too, questioned every action in the months leading up to the suicide of her father, Larry Wallace, a Xenia native who lived in California. Why hadn’t she seen any signs? Why hadn’t she cued in on his weight loss, or the way he had become more withdrawn? Why hadn’t she called him every day?
She had no warning before her 61-year-old father drove to the San Diego Bay and jumped off the Coronado Bridge. “I just don’t understand why,” Turner lamented. “He was such a good man and he did everything for his family. Police found a note saying he was a big failure and he had let everybody down.”
Her father’s pride suffered a terrible blow with the loss of his income, she said: “His parents were very poor, and he made a lot of money because he wanted to be better off than his parents and provide better for his kids. And all of a sudden it was taken away from him.”
Suicide is devastating for families. Turner said she thinks about her father constantly. “I take depression medicine because I’m such a mess,” she said. “When people do this, they just don’t understand the pain and the misery they’re causing for the people they leave behind.”
Fulford said her mother, who died from an apparent stroke in March, never truly recovered from Dilgard’s death: “It was like she checked out. She felt guilty for getting her Ph.D when we were growing up and for teaching English, and for getting divorced when we were in high school.”
When her mother moved to Dayton in her final years, Fulford said, “The saddest thing was that her new friends saw her as a frail older woman. Here she was this incredible woman who had mountain-biked through Europe and loved literature and books. They didn’t get to see that side of her. She loved her grandchildren dearly, but she wasn’t the same Grammy she was before.”
Clausing was so upset about her stepfather’s death that she left the University of Indiana in Bloomington after her first semester to move back home with her mother. “I knew how much my mom was dealing with and it was more important for me to be at home than away at school,” she explained.
Wildermuth couldn’t find a support group for suicide survivors and felt deserted by some of her friends. “People don’t know what to say or do, so most of them just kind of go away,” she said.
The family has found happiness again. Clausing earned a biology degree from Wright State University and will soon be starting graduate school in St. Petersburg, Fla., to become a physician assistant. Wildermuth married Mike Phillips last year, although she hasn’t yet changed her name. “I’m just not quite ready to let that go,” she said.
She advises families worried about loved ones to “be persistent; don’t let doctors tell you they’re OK when you know they’re not.” She added, “They do need constant attention so constantly reassure them that you love them and you want them to be here. Show them they are worth something through every avenue you have.”
Suicide prevention experts also urge vigilance, particularly with this age group which may be more inclined to hide their emotions. “It’s sad that they feel that they have to be strong or can’t show weakness or vulnerability or frustration,” Marks said. “It hurts them and keeps them from seeking help at an earlier time when so much more can be done.”
Key findings of CDC report on suicides:
- Suicide rates among those 35 to 64 years old increased 28 percent (32 percent for women, 27 percent for men).
- The greatest increases in suicide rates were among people aged 50 to 54 years (48 percent) and 55 to 59 years (49 percent).
- Among racial/ethnic groups, the greatest increases in suicide rates were among white non-Hispanics (40 percent) and American Indian and Alaska Natives (65 percent).
- Suicide rates increased 23 percent or more across all four major regions of the United States.
- Suicide rates increased 81 percent for hanging/suffocation, compared to 14 percent for firearm and 24 percent for poisoning.
- Firearm and hanging/suffocation were the most common suicide mechanisms for middle-aged men. Poisoning and firearm were the most common mechanisms for middle-aged women.
Source: The Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
How to get help:
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: www.afsp.org
National Alliance on Mental Illness: www.nami.org
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Suicide Prevention Center of Dayton’s anonymous hotline: 937-)229-7777 or 1-800-320-HELP.
To see a breakdown of the number of suicides age and race, log onto MyDaytonDailyNews.com.