Seniors & Suicide: Recognize The Warning Signs

Seniors & Suicide: Recognize The Warning Signs

April 20, 2019

In 2016, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Middle-aged adults and those over age 85 (particularly men) are at greatest risk for suicide attempts. Learn to recognize the warning signs in your loved ones, or yourself, before the worst happens

Why Seniors Attempt Suicide

While depression [add link to depression article] is a key risk factor for suicide, it isn’t the only one. Public health officials estimate that half of seniors who exhibit suicidal behavior have no known mental health issues. Often, it’s a combination of the physical, social, and financial aspects of aging that push seniors to the edge.

  • Financial concerns: The 2008 financial crisis did a number on Americans age 50+. Between losses in retirement accounts, employment age-related discrimination, and falling home values, it’s no surprise that more than a third of older Americans say that they’ve experienced “major financial stress” within the past 3 years. Forget travel and leisure; many people are struggling just to make ends meet on a fixed income.
  • Declining health: Depression itself is a medical condition, but it can be caused/exacerbated by health problems that limit mobility and decrease quality of life.
  • Loss of control: Many seniors struggle with the age-related physical and cognitive declines that restrict their mobility and autonomy. Seniors who are very concerned about personal autonomy are more likely to attempt suicide as a reaction to perceived loss of control and status.
  • Social isolation: As we age, it’s inevitable that we lose beloved friends and family members. Some move away; other pass away. It’s hard to lose your circle of friends and loved ones, and more difficult to add to your circle if you’re homebound or dealing with chronic illness.
  • Grief: It’s normal to grieve for lost loved ones, but intense grief that’s unusually severe or lasts a long time, may need treatment.
  • Unwillingness to ask for help: This is a particular problem in senior men who grew up in a culture that expected them to react stoically to life’s setbacks and challenges.

Seniors subjected to these types of internal and external stressors are more likely to consider suicide.  In general, a senior’s suicide attempt isn’t an impulsive act, but something that’s been considered for a long time and meticulously planned.

How to Recognize Suicide Warning Signs

Don’t assume your primary care physician will notice there’s a problem. Depression is a significant predictor of suicide, but fewer than 3% of primary care visits include depression screening, and as many as 25% of depressed patients who consult a doctor aren’t diagnosed with depression. Depression treatment is effective in reducing a patient’s thoughts of or inclination to commit suicide.

That’s why it’s important to recognize suicide warning signs in others – or in yourself.

  • Depression
  • Prior suicide attempts or a family history of suicide
  • Presence of other medical conditions
  • Physical pain
  • Social dependency or isolation
  • Family discord or loss
  • Inflexible or rigid personality
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Access to lethal means
  • A sudden change in mood – calmness after making an important decision

Of course, if someone is actually talking plainly about suicide, stating that “nobody cares” if they live or die, or seeking out options (pills, guns, etc.), then this is a critical situation that requires immediate intervention.

Suicide Prevention Resources

Mental health professionals have identified “protective factors” that can help reduce the risk of suicide.  They include:

  • Assessment and care for physical and mental health issues
  • Social connectedness
  • Sense of purpose or meaning
  • Resilience during transitions

Learn more about how to recognize suicidal behaviors and how to get help:

Although American seniors as a whole are more satisfied with their lives than other age groups, they’re also more reluctant to reach out for help when they’re in crisis. This is particularly an issue for older, white males; their suicide rate is 6 times higher than the general population.

Suicide is preventable, but we need to be willing confront the issues surrounding mental health care and how society views and supports seniors.


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