A new five-year analysis of the nation’s death rates recently released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the suicide rate among 45-to-54-year-olds increased nearly 20 percent from 1999 to 2004, the latest year studied, far outpacing changes in nearly every other age group. (All figures are adjusted for population.)

The tragic, unexplained* 2003 suicide of the well-regarded Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal leads a harrowing article about a tremendous jump in midlife suicides across the country; prescription drugs, the subject of last week’s cover story, are suggested as an influence. In 1999, SIU published an anthology of Neal’s work, Rolling on the River.

*Remind me to check Hot Type before I write anything about Chicago journalists. From 2004 (scroll down):

“Steve Neal spent Monday night in Northwestern Hospital, where they were running tests, so he called up Harry Caray’s Restaurant and had them bring over dinner. On Wednesday he laid out several notes on the dining room table of his Hinsdale home, then got into his car in the attached garage and let the exhaust kill him. Neal held court at table 40 in the corner of Harry Caray’s once or twice a week. His lunches were long and merry, and he saw to it the important work of the day was done before they began. Some of his friends worried that his lunches were killing him and others didn’t give that a thought. Doctors finally told him to stop drinking. The medication he was taking to help him do that made him sick. In the last month or so he wasn’t the same guy. He was pale, thin, and withdrawn. Suicide catches everyone by surprise, but some alert friends could see he’d become very, very depressed.”