Talking about suicide with seniors
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness month, and a chance to highlight the importance of mental health for seniors.
Suicide is a leading cause of death in the U.S and loneliness is major contributing factor. Many seniors already live in isolating settings, which can make maintaining mental health particularly difficult during the global health crisis.
Getting past the stigma and silence around suicide could help someone before it’s too late. Here are some talking points to bring up with your loved one and warning signs to be aware of.
Risk factors of suicide
As a board-certified clinical psychologist that specializes in senior health, Dr. Regina Koepp outlines a number of factors on her website that can put someone at higher risk of suicide. Among men, the highest rates of suicide are for those 75 and older according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
- Physical illness, which can limit seniors in taking part in activities and social gatherings, and lead to physical discomfort.
- Loss of ability, which limits independence and can lead someone to feeling like a burden.
- Anxiety, depression and substance abuse
During these trying times, the American Hospital Association points out that, “it is important for older adults and their families to stay alert for early warning signs of anxiety and depression – including changes in sleep and appetite, increased symptoms of anxiety and worry, fatigue and an inability to focus on pleasurable activities.”
The AHA recommends contacting the person’s primary care physician, who they can connect with over the phone or video conferencing to discuss next steps.
Signs that help is needed, now
Mental illness such as depression and other physical illnesses can be significant factors in a senior’s decision to commit suicide. It’s important to keep an ear out for comments or actions that point to end-of-life preparations. These can include:
- Giving away prized possessions or making will preparations
- Saying goodbye to loved ones
- Fixation with death and dying
- Keeping distance from friends and family
- Not engaging in usual activities or hobbies
- Taking risks that could lead to death
According to Psychology Today, some researchers consider depression more of a risk factor than loneliness, since many people who commit suicide live with others and keep in touch with friends and family.
Keeping a pulse on mental health
With the current health crisis, it’s not safe for most seniors to interact with their loved ones in the usual ways that keep loneliness at bay. This gap in physical and emotional connection is why it’s so important to keep a pulse on you and your loved one’s health.
An article from The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) points out that, “suicide is complicated and tragic, but it is often preventable. Knowing the warning signs for suicide and how to get help can help save lives.”
The NIMH has a web page dedicated to suicide prevention, which outline all the ways someone at risk can get help. This can include different types of medication and therapy.
Open Path, an online “psychotherapy collective,” offers the chance to virtually connect with therapists and counselors around the country. You can search for a therapist based on specialty, such as loss or grief, depression, insomnia, and a whole list of others. The rates are offered on a sliding scale based on income.
Encouraging social ties
It’s easy to see the benefits of technology during these trying times of isolation. Without work, an opportunity to volunteer in-person, or the ability to meet people face-to-face, life can feel directionless.
Thankfully, the online world offers plenty of resources. It’s no substitute for in-person connection but it can make all the difference.
- Ask a caregiver, family member or friend to help set up Skype, FaceTime or WhatsApp to stay connected virtually
- Read SeaCare’s blog on how to stay in touch in the time of coronavirus
- Take the opportunity of free time to listen to podcasts, such as The Psychology of Aging, and read more books
- Listen or read in tandem with a friend or family member and discuss the podcast or book later
- For LGBT seniors, call the SAGE hotline for information on helpful resources and general support at 877-360-5428
One of the most important aspects of caregiving is companionship. Don’t hesitate to call someone from SeaCare to find out how a caregiver can be of personal benefit to you or your loved one.
Helping seniors find daily joy
Seeing a photo of a cute puppy or laughing baby won’t make the feelings of isolation or depression disappear. But focusing on the small things that give us joy can lift our moods.
At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, the BBC published a report on finding happiness during tough times. Some of these include looking for distractions, being tidy to help the brain process difficult feelings, and not obsessing over the desire to be happy.
Gratitude can also go a long way. There are entire books and millions of search results that highlight the benefits of being grateful, which include easing depression and better self care.
With all of this, it’s important to keep in mind that someone’s depressive thoughts or feelings should not be diminished or brushed away when talking about the silver linings in life.
Depression and suicide are not easy topics to discuss. But the more we talk about mental health with loved ones, the more comfortable they may feel asking for help when they, or you, need it the most.
Other useful resources for suicide prevention and mental health
- Free COVID wellness guide
- The National Institute of Mental Health
- Mental health risks for seniors during COVID-19
This blog is not meant to replace the advice of a healthcare provider. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if you or your loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts.