Suicide is a tragic problem across all age groups. In the United States, suicide rates have been on the rise for several decades, and the issue disproportionately affects older adults. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, seniors account for 12 percent of the population but for 18 percent of deaths by suicide. Because the elderly population in the United States is growing so quickly, this could lead to a serious public health crisis in the coming years. The actual elderly suicide rate may be even higher than the official data. Suicide in the elderly could be under-reported because seniors are more likely than younger adults to engage in passive self-harm measures, such as not taking medication or not drinking water. These causes of death are not typically reported as suicides even if that was the individual’s intention.
Your later years should be an opportunity to enjoy time with family and engage in meaningful activities. Growing older brings about a number of challenges and transitions that can contribute to mental health struggles, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Addressing the problem as soon as you notice something is wrong is critical for health, happiness, and safety. If you or a loved one is aging, you should understand the risk factors and warning signs for elderly suicide as well as the mental health resources available for seniors.
Risk Factors for Elderly Suicide
No one is immune to mental health problems and suicidal thoughts. Unfortunately, these battles can affect anyone regardless of gender, race, socioeconomic level, and physical health. Statistics do show that there are certain demographics with higher rates of suicide, though.
The risk of elderly suicide is higher among men than women. This is true for the overall population as well. Seniors over 85 have a higher suicide rate than those between the ages of 65 and 84, and the elderly suicide rate is higher among white older adults than among other racial groups. LGBTQ seniors have a higher risk of suicide, too, likely due to lifelong experiences with discrimination.
There are also certain situations and experiences in life that can increase the likelihood of experiencing suicidal thoughts. One of the most common risk factors for elderly suicide is the recent loss of a spouse or another close loved one. It can be profoundly difficult to adjust after loss, especially if you’ve spent decades with a person.
Another common risk factor is a serious medical diagnosis or physical health problem. A medical condition could prevent an older adult from living independently or from engaging in their typical routine. They may worry about their future with their health condition, which could lead to thoughts of suicide.
Financial problems may increase the risk of suicide in the elderly, too. After retirement, a lot of seniors struggle to make ends meet. Even if financial issues aren’t the direct cause of suicidal thoughts, they can increase the overall level of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty in an older adult’s life.
Warning Signs of Elderly Suicide
Not everyone who is considering suicide will show every warning sign. Everyone’s experience with mental health is different, so what’s most important is that you stay alert for unusual or concerning changes in mood or behavior. However, there are some common signs to look out for that may indicate that a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or suicidal ideation.
You should check in with your loved one directly or with a mental health professional if you notice any of the following signs:
• Expressing feelings of depression, guilt, or hopelessness
• Avoiding social contact with others
• Spending more time sleeping than usual
• Substance abuse or other risky behaviors
• Loss of interest in usual activities or hobbies
• A sudden halt to self-care or tasks around the house
• Stopping taking medication or other healthcare regimens
• Giving away items
• A preoccupation with death or dying
• Statements about suicidal intent, even if said in a joking manner
Sometimes, other mental health conditions or challenges in life can cause some of these symptoms. You might tell yourself that your loved one is just having a hard time adjusting to retirement or that they’ll feel better soon. It is always better to err on the side of caution, though. If you have any worry or suspicion at all that a friend or family member is considering suicide, have a serious conversation with them about it. Refer them to the appropriate resources, and if necessary, contact medical professionals who can offer support.
Senior Mental Health Resources
Elderly suicide is a major problem, but it is preventable. There are a number of suicide prevention organizations throughout the country that can offer support, help you find counselors, and provide funding or transportation for mental health services.
If you or a loved one is having immediate thoughts of suicide, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. You can also contact the Institute on Aging’s crisis line at 800-971-0016. Not only does this hotline offer immediate crisis intervention, but they can refer you to services for continued mental health support.
For mental health services, start by contacting your local or state department of health or elderly services. They should have specific information about programs or counseling centers that can help your aging loved one. Some local and state organizations offer direct funding for mental health services for older adults. If your senior loved one has Medicare, they can also likely get mental health treatment covered through their plan.
Here are some of the best online resources for suicide prevention and mental health services for older adults:
• Eldercare Locator: Search for care providers in your zip code, city, or state.
• Senior Directory: Online directory of mental and behavioral health services in major cities.
• Administration on Aging: Agency providing mental health services and other services to seniors throughout the United States.
• Veterans Crisis Line: Suicide prevention hotline for veterans to speak with qualified responders who work with the Department of Veteran Affairs.
• National Council on Aging: Educational health resources for older adults and caregivers.
Talking with a loved one about suicidal thoughts can be uncomfortable, but it’s an incredibly important conversation. If you have any concerns at all about your friend or family member, look for resources in your area, and voice your worries to them during a private, safe, and supportive conversation. Checking in with loved ones regularly and watching out for the warning signs could save a life.
Blue Moon Senior Counseling provides therapy services for older adults struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and other challenges. If you’re worried about the mental health of yourself or an elderly loved one, please reach out to us today. Our counselors are here to help.