Life Challenges, Not Just Depression, Lead to Suicide in Older Adults

Distressed senior woman with her hand on her faceWe tend to assume people commit suicide as a result of mental health problems and not just due to difficult life circumstances. Research does show that mental health issues can lead to suicide, and about 2% of people hospitalized for depression eventually kill themselves. According to a new study, though, depression alone isn’t the only catalyst for suicidal thoughts in older adults. Instead, seniors cite numerous life problems as a primary suicide cause.

How Life Challenges Contribute to Suicidal Thoughts

In the study, researchers evaluated symptoms of depression in almost 3,500 New Yorkers ranging in age from 65 to 75. They also asked participants if they had felt that they would be better off dead within the last two weeks, or if they had contemplated harming themselves. Researchers followed up with people who expressed suicidal thoughts and were able to coordinate a group of 60 seniors willing to talk about their feelings.

Researchers asked these seniors about their reasons for considering suicide. About 75% of respondents cited life challenges such as financial struggles, legal concerns, family conflicts, or grief. Only 25% said they were depressed. The majority of seniors who cited life problems as a reason for suicide pointed to family relationships. About half said they had sufficient social support, while the other half said they did not. This research suggests that the challenges of growing old coupled with the everyday stresses of life could play a significant role in suicide among older Americans. 

Suicide and Seniors

Suicide rates among older adults are high. Of those over 65, 14.9 out of 100,000 commit suicide every year. Though elderly adults make up only 12.5% of the population, they account for 15.7% of suicide victims. Older Americans frequently suffer from loneliness and insufficient social support. They may also be victimized by mental health stigma that prevents them from getting appropriate mental health care when they need it. Seniors with appropriate support can and do recover from suicidal thoughts, though. The Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention, for example, places 3,500 calls to “at-risk” seniors every month, and similar services across the country are working to reduce the rate of suicide among seniors.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, contact a mental health professional or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-278-8255.

References:

  1. Does depression increase the risk for suicide? (2008, May 7). Retrieved from http://answers.hhs.gov/questions/3200
  2. Elderly suicide fact sheet [PDF]. (n.d.). Washington, D.C.: American Association of Suicidology.
  3. Graham, J. (2014, August 1). Many problems lead to thoughts of suicide, study finds. Retrieved from http://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/08/01/many-problems-lead-to-thoughts-of-suicide-study-finds/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&ref=health&_r=1&
  4. Span, P. (2013, August 7). Suicide rates are high among the elderly. Retrieved from http://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/07/high-suicide-rates-among-the-elderly/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

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  • Ben

    Ben

    August 7th, 2014 at 1:36 PM

    Our older population of Americans is being seriously overlooked and underserved. We all think about the physical health problems that they are living with but it is easy to forget that many of them also face these types of mental health challenges as well.

    We don’t give the the chance to talk to someone about it and most of the time even when they are in pain they may not even say anything to their primary care provider about the things that they are thinking or dealing with.

    Don’t forget about them. They can be a valuable source of information and for the most part they just don’t want to be left and forgotten.

  • merita

    merita

    August 8th, 2014 at 11:42 AM

    Can you imagine just how hard it is for many seniors to have to give up because they can lose their independence overnight? This is why so many of them are so sad and driven to suicide because they are so depressed about not being able to take care of themselves anymore and they have lost that freedom that they have likely cherished for so many years and not it has been taken away from them by age.

  • Susie

    Susie

    August 9th, 2014 at 12:37 PM

    The challenges faced by seniors are so unique that it is hard for those of us who have not reached that stage in our lives to fully appreciate the problems that they could be facing, many times all alone. I am not surprised that the rate of suicide among this population has generally been on the rise because the issues that they face and the hardships have been on the rise as well.

  • Lorraine

    Lorraine

    August 12th, 2014 at 4:31 PM

    My only comment would be that simply because someone does not cite depression as a cause for concern it does not mean that they are not depressed.

    To me, if you are in pain and grieving and thinking suicidal thoughts, then there is probably a very high likelihood that you are experiencing some form of depression whether you know that or not.

    Those are the things that we need to keep our eyes open for because much of the time someone may not even realize that they are in trouble when truthfully they very much are.

  • Pam

    Pam

    August 14th, 2014 at 10:37 AM

    I watched my Mom slowly commit suicide over the course of 8 years after my Father died. For the first 2-3 years the diagnosis was “depression”, for the next 2-4 years the diagnosis was “MCI due to depressive amnesia”, finally the diagnosis was “dementia of the Alzheimers type” although she improved cognitively from time to time which does not happen with Alzheimers. Her death certificate at age 86 listed cause of death as “adult failure to thrive.” She spent her last 2 years in Hospice care too weak to move, speak or participate in life much at all. After the first year of grief counseling, there were no “geriatric” therapists who did much besides keep her on Effexor until her death. I tried to care for her myself until the last two years she was too weak to stand and I couldn’t carry her. As prone as I may be to depression, I know I will not subject my son to what I witnessed/lived with my Mom; therefore “normal” suicide seems much kinder than long-term depressive disability.

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