Suicide at Symbolic Ages

Death on Stocktaking Occasions
  • David P. Phillips
  • Daniel G. Smith


More than 50 years ago, when Freud was about to turn 80, he asked Ernest Jones, “What is the secret meaning of celebrating the big round numbers of one’s life?” (Sampson & Sampson, 1985, p.152). Freud’s question has not been answered, or even addressed, since he first posed it, despite the widespread recognition that some ages have more symbolic significance than others. Professional works on the life cycle (Erikson, 1959; Birren, 1964; Riley, Abeles, & Teitelbaum, 1982; Kakar, 1979; Levinson, 1978; Colarusso & Nemiroff, 1981; Falicov, 1988; Karp, 1988) have not systematically discussed the psychological consequences of reaching symbolic ages like 40, 50, 60, 70, or 80 (aside from attention to the psychological impact of retirement at age 65). The topic of symbolic ages also seems to have been largely overlooked in literary works and entirely overlooked in research on suicide and in popular psychological discussions of aging (Sheehy, 1976). Failure to address this subject is puzzling in view of the very general tendency to regard certain ages as symbolic milestones, sometimes approached with celebration, but often regarded with dread and foreboding.


Randomization Test Paired Difference Death Date Adult Life Span Married Male 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Beck, A. T., Steer, R. A., & Kovacs, M., Garrison, B. (1985). Hopelessness and eventual suicide: A ten-year prospective study of patients hospitalized with suicidal ideation. American Journal of Psychiatry, 142, 559–563.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Birren, J. E. (1964). The Psychology of aging. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  3. Black, D. W., Winokur, G., & Nasrallah, A. (1987). Suicide in subtypes of major affective disorder. A comparison with general population suicide mortality. Archives of General Psychiatry, 44, 878–880.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Colarusso, C. A., Nemiroff, R. A. (1981). Adult development: A new dimension in psychodynamic theory and practice, New York: Plenum.Google Scholar
  5. Conover, W. J. (1971). Practical nonparametric statistics. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  6. Durbin, J. (1970). Testing for serial correlation in least-squares regression when some of the regressors are lagged dependent variables. Econometrica, 38, 410–421.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dyer, J. A. T., & Kreitman, N. (1984). Hopelessness, depression and suicidal intent in parasuicide. British Journal of Psychiatry, 144, 127–133.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Erikson, E. H. (1959). Identity and the life cycle—Selected papers. Psychological Issues, Vol. 1.Google Scholar
  9. Falicov, C. J. (Ed.). (1988). Continuity and change over the life cycle. New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  10. Ganzeboom, H. B. G., & de Haan, D. (1982). Gepubliceerde zelfmoorden en verhoging van sterfte door zelfmoorden ongelukken in Nederland 1972–1980 (Publicized suicides and an increase in deaths from suicidal accidents in the Netherlands 1972–1980). Mens en Maatschappij, 57, 55–69.Google Scholar
  11. Glejser, H. (1969). A new test for heteroscedasticity. Journal of American Statistical Association, 64, 316–323.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Kakar, S. (Ed.). (1979). Identity and adulthood. Delhi, India: Oxford.Google Scholar
  13. Karp, D. A. (1988). A decade of reminders: Changing age consciousness between fifty and sixty years old. The Gerontologist, 28, 727–738.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Levinson, D. J. (1978). The seasons of a man’s life. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  15. Phillips, D. P. (1974). The influence of suggestion on suicide: Substantive and theoretical implications of the Werther effect. American Sociological Review, 39, 340–354.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Phillips, D. P. (1977). Motor vehicle fatalities increase just after publicized suicide stories. Science, 196, 1464–1465.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Phillips, D. P. (1979). Suicide, motor vehicle fatalities, and the mass media: Evidence toward a theory of suggestion. American Journal of Sociology, 84, 1150–1174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Phillips, D. P., & Carstensen, L. L. (1986). Clustering of teenage suicides after television news stories about suicide. New England Journal of Medicine, 315, 685–689.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Phillips, D. P., & King, E. (1988). Death takes a holiday: Mortality surrounding major social occasions. The Lancet, (2): 728–732.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Phillips, D. P., & Paight, D. J. (1987). The impact of televised movies about suicide. A replicative study. New England Journal of Medicine, 317, 809–811.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Phillips, D. P., & Wills, J. (1987). A drop in suicides around major national holidays. Suicide Life Threatening Behavior, 17, 1–12.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Riley, M. W., Abeles, R. P., & Teitelbaum, M. S. (Eds.). (1982). Aging from birth to death—Sociotemporal perspectives (AAAS Selected Symposium). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  23. Sampson, A. & Sampson, S. (Eds.). (1985). The Oxford book of ages. New York: Oxford.Google Scholar
  24. Schmidtke, A., & Hafner, H. (1988). The Werther effect after television films: New evidence for an old hypothesis. Psychological Medicine, 18, 665–676.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Sheehy, G. (1976). Passages: Predictable crises of adult life. New York: Dutton.Google Scholar
  26. Tsuang, M. T. (1978). Suicides of schizophrenics, manics, depressives, and surgical controls. Archives General Psychiatry, 35, 153–155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • David P. Phillips
    • 1
  • Daniel G. Smith
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of California at San DiegoLa JollaUSA

Personalised recommendations