Generation X – those born in the 1960s and 1970s – are dying from suicide or drug poisoning in greater numbers than any other age-group, ONS data shows.
The data shows that in the late 1980s to early 1990s in England and Wales, more twentysomethings died by taking their own lives or drug poisoning than any other age-group.
Since that time, deaths from these two causes have continued to affect this generation, who are now in their 40s and 50s – to a higher degree than any other age-group. This effect has also been seen in the US and Canada.
Ben Humberstone, ONS deputy director for health and life events, said: “Since the late 1980s to early 1990s, we’ve seen that those who are part of the so-called ‘Generation X’ have been consistently more likely to die by either suicide or drug poisoning than any other generation.
“The reasons behind these deaths are complex, but our most recent data suggest that those currently living in the most deprived communities are at the highest risk.”
Opioids contributed to 53% of drug poisoning deaths in England and Wales in 2017. And, in 2018, Public Health England (PHE) said that 40-49 year olds had the highest rate of drug misuse deaths, but rates have fallen in all age groups except the very oldest – those aged 50-69 and 70+.
An explanation for these figures could be that Generation X has a higher proportion of long-term heroin users with failing health, who are therefore at greater risk of drug poisoning, according to PHE.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was an upturn in the use of drugs such as heroin by young people. As drug users age, the long-term consequences of prolonged drug-taking tend to be more pronounced as the body loses resilience and users start dying, the health body said.
A parallel pattern can be seen for deaths caused by suicide. In 2017, 49 was the age at which most people died by suicide, whereas back in 1993 this age was 22. Data suggests this apparent generational shift in suicides also seems to have begun in the late 1980s.
Changes in male suicide rates in Europe from 1981 to 2011 have previously been linked to unemployment and debt, with some studies showing suicide rates to be almost four times higher among the long-term unemployed. Similar risk factors have also been identified for drug poisoning deaths.
In the latest ONS figures, suicide rates among some age groups were as much as double or more in the most deprived neighbourhoods compared to the most affluent. “The difference in the rates at which the most and least deprived people died by suicide was most evident in the 40s and 50s age groups, but with drug deaths this difference was much larger,” ONS said.
“With drug deaths, we see relatively few people affected in the least deprived areas, whereas the most deprived saw many times these numbers of deaths, especially in the middle-age groups.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.