An estimated 8,618 Americans over the age of 60 died from suicide in 2010, according to the U.S. Administration on Aging. While suicide affects people of all ages and races, and can occur in either gender, suicide rates are the highest for while males over the age of 85 – suicide rates in this age group are more than four times the national average. Geriatric psychiatry offers a variety of strategies to reduce the risk for suicide in older Americans.
There are several major risk factors for suicide in the elderly, including:
- Previous suicide attempts
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Serious medical conditions that cause dysfunction or shortened life expectancy
- Loss of independence or sense of purpose
- Social isolation
- Family discord
- Loss of a loved one
- Access to firearms or other means to commit suicide
Suicide Warning Signs in Older Adults
The warning signs for suicide in older adults are different from younger individuals and can be difficult to identify. Prominent symptoms prior to elderly suicide include insomnia, weight loss, feelings of guilt, and hypochondria. An older person planning suicide is also likely to change his will, stopping medical treatments but stockpiling medications, giving away meaningful items, and putting his affairs in order. An expression of suicidal intent is the most significant warning sign.
Suicide Prevention in Older Adults
Suicide prevention in older Americans requires many strategies. Geriatric psychiatry plays an integral role in suicide prevention strategies, such as universal prevention including dementia evaluation, depression screening, education on risk factors and suicide prevention, hot lines and limiting the access to firearms and other means of suicide. Selective prevention targets individuals at greatest risk for suicide; selective prevention is appropriate for at risk individuals who may not have displayed suicidal behaviors or expressed thoughts of suicide. Indicated prevention focuses on high-risk individuals who have attempted suicide in the past, expresses a desire to hurt themselves, or who exhibit suicidal behaviors.
Geriatric psychiatry can help get an older person to a better place. Geriatric psychiatrists have a deep understanding of the special mental health issue that many older people face. Even brief therapy can be beneficial, especially when combined with medication for depressive disorders. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, one study showed this approach helped more than 80 percent of geriatric patients recover from depression.
Anyone concerned about an elderly person’s risk for suicide should contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.