By: Carol Briggs, Clinical Intern
In 2018, the number of adults over age 65, in the United States, reached 52 million, and estimates predict that by 2060, that number will reach 95 million. A major issue impacting older adults is suicide, however when you hear statistics on suicide rates, the numbers often highlight younger populations. And the numbers that are available may be under-reported by 40% or more. Not counted are “silent suicides,” these include overdoses, self-starvation, or dehydration, and “accidents.” Most older adults who die by suicide have mental health issues related to anxiety and depression. Research found that 43–70% of older persons visited a primary care provider within one month of suicide. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) reports the shocking statistic that 20% of older adults who committed suicide saw their doctors the same day. Naturally, physicians focus on addressing physical needs. When older adults are presented with the realities of declining physical health, this can create or amplify mental health issues. Older adults are more likely to seek help from their primary care physicians before seeing mental health care practitioners.
Counselors can play a role in training health care workers to spot risk factors associated with suicide and to know how to discuss suicide with patients. Additionally, counselors can push for an awareness of these issues and encourage physicians to refer older adults for mental health services. Family and friends play an important role in prevention as well. Risk factors that impact younger populations apply to older adults. In older adults, factors can be intensified by medical illness, family conflict, financial worries, physical disability, chronic pain, loss, and grief. If you know that your loved one is experiencing any of these issues, they may be at risk. It is important to follow-up with them after medical appointments. Ask them about any changes they are experiencing physically and how they are feeling about it. Encourage them to seek help from a mental health professional if you notice signs of depression or anxiety. See last week’s post for signs that someone may be considering suicide and how to talk to them about it. Communities can play a role in preventing suicide in older adults too. Pilot programs to include suicide prevention training for Meals on Wheels volunteers indicated that such a strategy can be useful in decreasing suicide rates among older adults. Awareness is the first step in addressing the issue, and it certainly takes a village to make an impact!
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American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy: Suicide in the Elderly
Fullen, M.C. (2016). Mobilizing the community to prevent older adult suicide. Illness, Crisis & Loss, 24(3), 155-169. https://doi.org/10.1177/1054137315589699
Population Reference Bureau (PBR). (2019). Fact sheet: Aging in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.prb.org/aging-unitedstates-fact-sheet/