This World Suicide Prevention Day, Let’s Create Hope Through Action

Potential Trigger Warning: This article discusses suicide in an open and informative way.
Reader discretion is advised.

On September 10, people and organizations around the world gather to have an important conversation that is uncomfortable, yet necessary: how we, as a global community, can bring awareness and help prevent suicide. World Suicide Prevention Day’s theme this year is: Creating Hope Through Action. This theme is an important clarion call to start speaking up, asking sometimes hard questions, and truly reaching out to others to prevent suicide in our communities. This year, more so than others, this call to hope is more prescient than ever.

Today, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. Many people believe that suicide only affects the young, and while it is true that it is the second leading cause of death for those aged 10-34 years old, suicide claims the lives of our aging population at an alarming rate. In fact, men aged 70 years and older have a statistically higher rate of suicide than any other single age group. Notably, one in four seniors who attempt to die by suicide will succeed in their attempt, while only 1 in 200 youths will. According to one study, “Older adults are about 12% of the population but make up 18% of all suicides.” This is due to the fact that many older adults have access to the most lethal means to end their lives: firearms and medications. Across the country, 51% of all suicides are completed by firearm; when you bring in the older adults who die this way, that number goes up to 70%. Why do we not hear about these deaths? According to the AAMFT, elderly suicides are underreported by 40% or more due to what experts call, “silent suicides,” overdoses, self-starvation or dehydration, and “accidents.” Even underreported, these numbers are tragically high. After living a long life, why would one choose to end their journey on this earth? The reasons, unfortunately, are as simple as they are complicated.

Suicide is a side effect of depression, and as many get older, they can develop signs of depression. This depression is increased by things like loneliness due to outliving their friends, social isolation due to things like the current pandemic and/or distant family members, and increasingly failing body systems and onset of illness. Increasingly, health care professionals are even writing off sadness in senior citizens as normal, “The average age of doctors is half the age of seniors who are coming in for care, and seniors are stereotyped with the idea that it’s normal to have pain, to feel alone, and to experience multiple deaths.” However, it is important to note that depression is not a normal component of aging and is treatable; screenings for seniors and programs that provide mental health services to seniors are more important than ever to help prevent the side effects of depression, including suicide. However, seniors are less likely to focus on mental health concerns with their doctors than physical ones, but doctors also know that more often than not, mental pain can manifest into physical pain and vice versa.

Other factors that increase the risk of elderly suicide are:

  1. Relationship issues
    1. The end of a relationship often causes a loss of identity.
  2. Experiencing a major life crisis, such as loss of a spouse
    1. When a spouse passes, often the surviving spouse ends their life to not face loneliness or other complications surrounding the loss.
  3. Substance abuse
    1. A study investigating 85 suicides in people 65 and older, more than 35% of the men who died by suicide had a history of alcohol dependence or misuse. Nearly 18% of women had the same results.
  4. Employment or financial factors, including poverty
    1. When they ought to be dreaming of enjoying retirement, 40% of those 55 and older are either working or seeking work. By 2024, that number is set to increase for those 65 and older. The NCOA affirms that many of the elderly population today are strapped for cash, with more than 25 million Americans 60 and older living at or below the poverty line, thus the need for continued work. The pressures of poverty compound, leading elders to consider suicide.
  5. Physical health concerns
    1. As an example, Parkinson’s disease increases suicide risk, finding one in three individuals with this diagnosis have active suicidal or death ideations.
  6. Legal or criminal issues
    1. According to the CDC, “in about one in ten cases, the person who dies by suicide has some form of legal issues that likely contributed to his/her death. Complicating this use, older adults with criminal records report healthcare discrimination. As older adults often require more health care, this discrimination can be deadly.
  7. Housing-related stress
    1. With housing costs increasing – both for independent seniors living in their own homes and those who live in some form of assisted living community – the stress of these costs, along with overpopulation and neighborhood issues, can lead to someone ending their life.

Holistic wellness is so important to our aging community, but the conversations have to start somewhere, somehow. Luckily, there is no better time to start these conversations than now.

Suicide still carries with it a huge stigma, and many people are not willing – or comfortable enough – to talk about it. “There is this old belief that if you ask somebody if they are thinking of killing or hurting themselves that will make them do it, and that’s not true. If anything, it is a relief for them that they can share it.” As a community who appreciates and loves our aging population, it is so important to assess potential risk of suicidal thoughts. Some things to look for are:

  1. Expressing depression or hopelessness
  2. Loss of independence
  3. Serious medical condition diagnosis
  4. Lack of desire or inability to deal with changes
  5. Exhibition of risky behaviors
  6. Increase in substance use/abuse
  7. Statements indicating life would be better if they were not around
  8. Former suicide attempts
  9. Giving away of valuable possessions

If someone you love is exhibiting one or any combination of these factors, it is so important to ask them if they are thinking of hurting themselves or ending their lives. This could potentially require many steps including:

  1. Talk with them. A study in Italy found that phone calls twice a week to at-risk seniors decreased their likelihood of taking their own lives. It is important to have open, nonjudgmental conversations with these individuals, as there are already so many judgments and stigmas around mental health and suicide. Many of the aging adults in our lives prefer private conversations, so embrace this in a way that respects their privacy, letting them know you will only tell someone else if there is increased concern.
  2. Know where they can go for help. Many counseling practices around the country are becoming more aware of the complicated issues that the aging population may face. Either work with the individual to find a practice or offer to find one yourself for them. Senior centers can also offer programs related to hobbies, fitness, or other special interests that can ease some of the loneliness and feelings of hopelessness that lead to suicide. Find local hospital facilities that can help as well. The more you know, the better prepared you will be for this conversation and any actions to take as a result.
  3. Connect them with elderly support groups where they can connect with other seniors who may be facing the same life struggles. Grief support groups, illness-related support groups, and even aging in general support groups are likely available in your area.
  4. Limit their access to substances and arrange any needed withdrawal support, such as rehab or medical assistance. Taking alcohol and drugs of choice out of the home of the individual takes away abuse and overdose potential. Find support for this step with local substance abuse programs in your area; they are the experts, and their advice is valuable.
  5. Remove lethal means that may make taking their life easier. Taking firearms out of the house and placing them with a safe person until their situation improves is one way to accomplish this. This allows a greater ability to thwart any of their plans for suicide long enough to get them help to erase this risk. It may not solve the problem, but it helps.

There are many organizations that can help you help the seniors in your life. The Institute on Agingd runs the Friendship Line at 1-800-971-0016 created exclusively for seniors and individuals with disabilities. Texting HOME to 74141 connects a person with a crisis counselor through the Crisis Text Line. The AARP even has online tools to help connect isolated seniors with others in their area. Check for local programs in your area as well, including senior centers and other community centers with senior-centered programming.

There is no shortage of organizations to turn to for help, and VANTAGE Aging’s menu of services can help as well. From daily wellness checks and meals that meet their dietary needs from our friendly Meals on Wheels of Northeast Ohio staff and volunteers to employment help with our SCSEP program, assistance with daily activities of living that may be hard for them to complete from our Home Wellness Solutions staff to frequent check-ins via phone from our AmeriCorps RSVP volunteers, and even wraparound services that include mental health services with our partners at the Blick Clinic, there is no shortage of ways VANTAGE Aging can help ease the burdens that plague so many aging adults in our communities. The time is now to create hope through action for struggling seniors in our lives; VANTAGE can help create that hope.

*The information in this article is intended solely to provide general information on matters of interest for the personal use of the reader, who accepts full responsibility for its use. This article should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, medical, or other competent advisors.

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