Reporting on suicide among the elderly — a major public health issue even before the pandemic

About Katti Gray

Katti Gray (@kattigray) is AHCJ's core topic leader for behavioral and mental health. A former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow, Gray is providing resources to help AHCJ members expand their coverage of mental health amid ongoing efforts to de-stigmatize mental illness and to place mental health care on par with all health care.

Photo by Borja via Flickr

The pandemic’s assorted pressures have caused a spike in suicidal thoughts among subsets of people, including older Americans whose risk for suicidal ideation — and suicide itself — is linked to some of the particularities of aging.

According to a March 2021 analysis by geriatric researchers at Adelphi and Columbia Universities, 28% of U.S. adults who were at least 65 years old, or 14.7 million people, resided alone. That tally of older people living solo — and often enduring the gut punches of isolation and loneliness — only went up from there. Approximately 44% of women ages 75 and older lived alone.

There’s a kind of pile-on effect at play, researchers suggest, as societal and health problems circle in and out of each other. Social isolation can and does often worsen chronic illness, which disproportionately besets older people. The CDC calculates 85% of those age 65 and older have at least one chronic illness; 60% have two or more.

Men 75 and older had the highest risk for suicide, according to the CDC’s most recent data, with 39.9 such suicides per 100,000 Americans. The comparable figure for women in that age group was 4.3 per 100,000. For those ages 65 through 74, the respective rates were 26.4 and 5.9. (This 2018 analysis in Clinical Interventions in Aging put the rate for white men who were 65 and older at 48.7 per 100,000.)

Several nonprofits and government agencies have rolled out efforts to raise awareness, especially amid COVID-19. But even preceding the pandemic, suicide among the elderly — the nation’s fast-growing age demographic — was being recognized as a major public health issue fueled partly by many older people feeling a loss of control over their finances, health, etc.

The National Council on Aging, which co-hosted the July 2021 “Understanding Social Isolation and its Impact on Older Adults” webinar and the September 2021 “Insights and Strategies for Reducing Suicide Among Older Adults” webinar, has several upcoming webinars on this topic including “Mental Health First Aid for Adults,” slated for Oct. 13.

Across the spectrum, observers, researchers and others have noted that the following raise the risks of suicide among the elderly: social isolation and loneliness, depression, and other mental health problems; substance use disorders, including addiction to prescribed medicines; disability; and persistent pain and chronic illness.

Useful resources for health care journalists

  • The American Psychiatric Association has a geriatric telepsychiatry toolkit for clinicians.
  • This article in Geriatric Medicine gives geriatricians and other doctors tools for detecting suicidal ideation in the aging population. Most people who committed suicide had seen a doctor within 30 days prior to killing themselves.
  • The Suicide Prevention Resource Center focuses on, among others, older adults.
  • The Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention is based in the Bay Area but works far beyond California and has a nationally recognized founder.
  • The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy has been especially focused on suicides linked to aging, including among the rural elderly.
  • This summer 2019 analysis in Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging parses the urban-rural divide in suicide, including how rural elders have less access to mental health and related services than elders living in cities.
  • This June 2021 analysis, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that suicides surged, in recent years, among white rural men.
  • Here’s a May 2021 JAMA Network piece on race and ethnicity trends in suicide. It doesn’t focus on the elderly per se but it’s still relevant.
  • America’s Health Rankings lists New York as the best and Nevada the worst when it comes to suicides among people who are at least 65 years old.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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