May is Mental Health Awareness Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is estimated that 20% of people age 55 years or older experience some type of mental health concern.
The most common mental health conditions for aging seniors include anxiety, severe cognitive impairment (Alzheimer’s) and mood disorders such as depression or bipolar disorder. Mental health issues are often implicated as a factor in cases of suicide and older men have the highest suicide rate of any age group. With the recent suicide of Robin Williams, it brings to the forefront that no matter how together someone might look on the outside, there can still be mental health issues troubling someone on the inside.
I came across an article originally posted in the New York Times on November 29, 2007 entitled, “Preventing Suicide among the Elderly” which shared alarming statistics regarding older adult suicide. According to the article, “While people 65 and older account for 12 percent of the population, they represent 16 to 25 percent of the suicides. Four out of five suicides in older adults are men. And among white men over 85, the suicide rate – 50 per 100,000 men – is six times that of the general population.” Wow.
What drives older adults to contemplate and even carry out senior suicide? Depression. Depression is the most prevalent mental health problem
among older adults. It is associated with distress and suffering: depression from health issues; depression from not being as active as in earlier years; depression from loneliness from losing a spouse; depression from not feeling valued; depression from not feeling connected with other human beings.
This social component of depression is especially critical for older men. “Many men are poorly prepared for retirement, and don’t know how to fill in the hours and maintain a sense of usefulness when they stop working. ‘They often sit around watching TV,’ said Martha Bruce, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University in White Plains, New York.” Another factor is widowhood. This observation was shared in the article: “Widowers are especially at risk because older men in the current generation tend to depend on their wives to maintain social contacts. When wives die, their husbands’ social interactions often cease.”
How to help older adults feel connected and valued to avoid senior suicidal tendencies? The article recommends having older adults find and maintain a daily purpose for their lives. “Older adults should structure their days by maintaining a regular cycle and planning activities that ‘give them pleasure, purpose and a reason for living.” Participating with social activities like “joining a book club or bowling league, going to a senior center or gym, taking courses at a local college, hanging out at the coffee shop,” provides the kind of social activity that wards off depression. Another way older adults can promote a healthy outlook and feeling of self-worth is to develop new interests “like painting or needlework or volunteering at a place of worship, school or museum.”
Senior suicide is real. With more baby boomers reaching older adulthood, it is wise to become familiar with the triggers for senior suicide including mental health issues like depression. The key is clear: stay active, stay involved, and find purpose in every day.