Suicide rate among nation’s elderly over looked and under reported

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

While the elderly make up only 13 percent of the population, they account for more than 20 percent of all suicides. And, contrary to popular opinion, only a fraction had been diagnosed with a terminal illness when they ended their lives.

As baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) come of age, suicide among the elderly is expected to become epidemic in the United States. The Project CARE (Community Action Response Endeavor) Suicide Prevention Committee of Iroquois and Kankakee Counties hopes to bring the issue to the forefront this May during National Mental Health Awareness Month.

Comprised of representatives from area health and human services agencies, law enforcement, education and social service organizations, Project Care was formed two years ago after learning that the area’s suicide rate was significantly higher than average.

Elder suicide actually may be under reported by as much as 40 percent, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Many seniors will commit “silent” suicide through medical non-compliance; self-starvation and/or dehydration Silent suicide frequently goes unrecognized because of
undiagnosed depression and the belief that these actions are made as rational end-of-life decisions. However, the elderly committing silent suicide must be distinguished from terminally ill patients who refuse further treatment in order not to prolong the act of dying

The most promising way to prevent suicide is to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, but too often, depression among the elderly is seen as a normal consequence of aging, stressed Christine Anthony, director of Behavioral Services at Riverside HealthCare and a member of Project Care.

Although most senior citizens are quite happy with their lives, there are specific issues facing seniors that can cause depression. Many may be coping with a physical impairment, financial stress or loss of a loved one. And, depression often occurs with cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. Some medications used to treat these conditions also can cause or exacerbate existing depression, she said.

Also, serotonin levels – a neurotransmitter which limits self-destructive behavior – decline naturally with age and can bring on bouts of clinical depression. Yet, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that as many as 75 percent of elderly Americans were not receiving treatment for depression even though most had been seen by a primary care physician within one month of their suicide.

“The signs of depression are often overlooked by primary care physicians because they are rushed for time and will attribute the symptoms of depression to physical illness or believe the old adage that they because they are ill they should feel depressed,” said Dr. Mary Belford, a psychiatrist with Associated Psychiatrists of Kankakee.

Because the older population is less likely to seek help, recognition and effective treatment of depression should be a top priority. In addition to medical problems that may make them vulnerable to depression, other risk factors for suicide in older adults include specific personality traits such as neurosis, timidity, hostility and a rigid, fiercely independent lifestyle with low openness to experience.

There are things families can do to reduce those risks, Dr. Belford added. “It’s important to help elders stay intellectually and physically active and involved in day-to-day activities. Any concerns, should be discussed with health and care providers.”

Most elderly who are treated for depression respond well to therapy.

For more information about suicide prevention activities, contact Jackie Haas, executive director of the Helen Wheeler Center for Community Mental Health and co-coordinator of Project CARE, at 939-3543.

Project CARE Suicide Prevention Committee of Kankakee and Iroquois Counties

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