Older adults and suicide is a
topic not often discussed, according to mental health officials and advocates;
yet suicides do occur among older people. “Eighty-eight people aged 60 and
older died as a result of suicide in El Dorado County between 2003 and 2013.
That is far too many,” said Laura Walny, Program Coordinator for El Dorado
County Mental Health. “As a community, we need to begin talking about this so
we can integrate suicide prevention into older adult programs and services. For
many years, suicide prevention efforts have primarily focused on young people. We’d
like to enhance these efforts, as data shows that nearly 30% of people who die
from suicide in California are older adults.”
Suicide is not an easy topic to
discuss and can be more challenging for older adults. “Older adults may be reluctant
to talk about personal issues such as depression or thoughts of suicide,” said
Walny. “It is important that family members, friends, caregivers and health care
providers of older adults are aware of this issue, know the risks and signs,
and have tools to offer support.”
In 2013, a total of 3,990
people died by suicide in California; 1,152 of those people were aged 60 or
older. Studies show that white males make up the largest percentage of deaths
by suicide for all age groups including older adults, with a 3:1 ratio of male
to female deaths by suicide. A large number of these suicides are committed
with firearms. For this reason, advocacy organizations support restricting
access to lethal means as one of the most important preventive strategies with
all age groups, especially older adults.
Risk factors, warning signs and
symptoms of suicide and depression can look different for older people than for
young adults. Some risk factors increase with age, such as social isolation;
chronic health conditions; disabilities; limited mobility and access to
services and activities; substance abuse; and fear of prolonged illness.
Symptoms of depression in older adults (such as loss of appetite, changes in
sleep and disinterest in activities once enjoyed) can often be mistaken for
“normal” signs of aging.
“Older adults face challenges
such as coping with retirement, smaller budgets, health concerns, and loss of
friends and family,” said Walny. “Research shows that as we age it is important
to maintain a social circle of friends, engage in meaningful activities (such as
volunteering or taking up a hobby), and stay as physically active as possible.
These activities are good for our mental health and well-being, and are protective
factors against suicide.” Walny emphasized that if someone is severely
depressed, it is important to reach out for help to a mental health
professional or trained counselor.
The most critical warning signs
of suicide are:
“If you are concerned about a
friend, relative or neighbor, don’t ignore those feelings,” said Walny. “Talk
to them and ask direct questions. Call the Friendship Line at (800) 971-0016 or
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 and talk with a trained
counselor who can provide additional tips.”
El Dorado County Mental Health
and partner agencies offer trainings on suicide prevention. For questions about
local suicide prevention trainings, contact Mental Health at (530) 621-6130. Mental
Health also operates a 24-hour mental health crisis line at (530) 622-3345 in
Placerville and at (530) 544-2219 in South Lake Tahoe for residents
experiencing a mental health crisis. In an emergency, call 911.
September is National Suicide
Prevention Awareness Month, an annual campaign designed to inform and engage the
community and health professionals about suicide prevention. The campaign also
aims to reduce stigma surrounding the topic, and encourage mental health
assistance and support for people who have attempted or thought about suicide.
This year in California, the campaign is focused on suicide among older people.
For information about Mental
Health services or local programs for seniors in El Dorado County, visit www.edcgov.us/hhsa. El Dorado County Mental Health’s main phone
lines are (530) 621-6290 in Placerville or (530) 573-7970 in South Lake Tahoe.
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