September Is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month
Experts report that depression, stress and anxiety people have been experiencing during the pandemic have led to an increase in suicide attempts. And according to the University of Southern California School of Gerontology, while older adults make up 12% of the population, they account for more than 18% of deaths by suicide.
Suicide is more likely to be fatal in older people. The reasons are many. Older adults, men in particular, are more likely to use a firearm, which makes it more likely that an attempt will be fatal. Seniors are less likely to be open about experiencing suicidal thoughts in time for friends, family or professionals to intervene. When an older adult lives alone, it is less likely an attempt will be discovered before it’s too late. And a physical frailty makes seniors less able to recover from an attempt.
Here are risk factors that raise the risk of suicide attempts among older adults:
- Mental illness and mood disorders, especially major depression and substance misuse.
- A physical illness that causes pain, disability or insomnia.
- Life circumstances that lead to loneliness and isolation, such as living alone, giving up driving, loss of a spouse, mobility limitation, and sensory loss.
- Access to means of suicide, such as firearms or large amounts of certain medications.
Family and friends should also be alert to signs that a senior might be contemplating suicide:
- Threats or comments about wanting to die or kill themselves. Take talk seriously!
- Expressions of hopelessness, feeling like they are a burden, or feeling unbearable pain.
- Suddenly putting their affairs in order and giving things away.
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs.
- Buying a firearm, stockpiling medications or otherwise looking for a way to access lethal means.
Important: If you believe the person is in crisis, see the emergency contact information at the bottom of this page and seek help right away.
Lowering the Risk
If an older adult is feeling depressed or in despair, geriatric psychologists recommend these steps:
Seek treatment for depression. Depression is so common among older adults that some people think it is “just a part of growing older.” But it is not normal, and it can be treated. Counseling, lifestyle changes and medications can make a big difference. Many psychiatric professionals are offering online consultations at this time.
Combat loneliness. A person who feels alone may not feel that life is worth living. Retirement and the loss of one’s spouse can leave older adults with fewer social opportunities. Moving to a senior living community can provide more social context, and help older adults feel a sense of connection and purpose.
Manage health conditions. Many diseases and disorders that are more common with age can challenge our ability to feel good about life. Pain, disability, sensory loss, dementia, and even the side effects of medication can all lead to a downward spiral. It’s important to get the necessary support to keep regular health care appointments and follow the doctor’s recommendations.
Recognize and treat alcohol and drug abuse. As the pandemic has progressed, many older adults report drinking more alcohol. There’s been an uptick in the overuse of other substances, as well. This can lead to depression. In addition, many older adults who attempt suicide do so with an overdose of medications.
A recent study published in Archives of Suicide Research found that with help, many people with a history of suicide attempts are able to improve their mental health and lose the desire to make another attempt. According to study author Esme Fuller-Thomson, director of the University of Toronto Institute for Life Course and Aging, with the support of professionals, family and friends, many go on to flourish psychologically. “This is a very hopeful finding for individuals struggling with suicidality and their loved ones,” Fuller-Thompson affirms.
Help is available!
If you need help yourself, or you believe that someone you know is considering suicide, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or go to the website at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. This service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. Talk to your doctor about depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide. If you or a loved one is in suicidal crisis, call 911 or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline right away.