At the annual meeting of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, researchers presented a study that showed that older adults contemplating suicide do not cite depression as the primary reason. More often, seniors blame their struggles with illness, disability, financial concerns, family difficulties, and bereavement for their suicidal thoughts. While many of these factors may contribute to depression, the findings are that treating depression alone may not be enough to curb the rates of senior suicide.
Suicide Rates Among the Elderly
In 2011, a total of 39,518 suicides were reported in the United States, making it the tenth most common cause of death in our country. The age group with the second highest rate of suicide, 16.9 people for every 100,000, occur in people ages eighty-five or older. Researchers believe that the number of elderly suicides is actually much higher because many senior suicides go unreported. With such a stigma surrounding suicide many coroners will go out of their way to label a senior’s suicide as something else. For example, in many cases of suicide via overdose most are labeled as an accident.
The suicide rates for elderly men continue to climb even as screening and prevention techniques improve. After the age of sixty the suicide rate for women decreases dramatically, but the rate among men keeps climbing. Elderly white men have the highest rate of suicide with 29 deaths per 100,000 people, and white men over the age of 85 have a staggering suicide rate of 47 people per 100,000.
Past Research on Elderly Suicide
Previous research suggested that as many as 87% of all seniors who committed suicide suffered from major depression before choosing to end their lives. However, those statistics were drawn from research on elderly people after they had actually committed suicide. The newest research presented at this year’s meeting focused instead on living seniors who had acknowledged suicidal thoughts but chose not to follow through.
New Research on Senior Suicide Rates
This new study asked seniors exactly what they were thinking about when considering suicide, rather than relying on retrospective analysis to understand the seniors’ mental states. In this study, seniors were screened for symptoms of depression, and one question asked about whether or not the senior had considered suicide or had suicidal thoughts in the previous two weeks. To those elderly participants that responded yes to that question, those that were willing to follow up answered more questions regarding their state of mind.
Researchers then tallied the reasons for the seniors’ despair and the results were quite different from previous studies. Around seventy-five percent of seniors cited illness, financial concerns, pain, family difficulties, bereavement, or other problems as reasons for their suicidal thoughts. Depression was cited as a reason for only one quarter of the participants in the study.
The researchers also asked why these seniors decided not to take their own lives. The majority of seniors cited family relationships as the main answer. Another significant portion cited their faith as why they had chosen not to commit suicide. The results of the study show that focusing on the treatment of depression alone is not enough to deter many seniors who have thoughts of suicide and that context is needed to properly treat those in need.