Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging Behavioral/Mental Health

Suicide prevention among older adults

Written by Katie Wiedeman, MSW Candidate, Brown School and student in Contemporary Perspectives on Aging

Mental health and suicide are concerns that impact Americans of every age, but for older adults, these issues are especially pertinent. Although 16.8% of the US population are over the age of 65, they account for 20% of all suicide deaths nationally. This trend demonstrates the scope and urgency of the issue.

Reasons for older adults’ high risk of suicide include loneliness, challenging life transitions, and the use of lethal methods. Loneliness is pervasive – 25% of older adults are socially isolated. At any age, loneliness is a risk factor for suicide, but because of the loss of family and friends and the increased likelihood of living alone, loneliness is even more prevalent for older adults. This decreased lack of social support is related to difficulties with moving into new stages of life. As people navigate these transitions, there may be grief about losing their former lifestyle and ability to do certain activities. Finally, another key factor is that generally, older adults use more lethal means, like firearms, and are less likely to be rescued, as many live alone. Guns are more frequently used because older adults plan their suicides very precisely and often have access to firearms, as 45% of older adults own or live with someone who owns a firearm. All of these prevailing factors influence the high rate of suicide among older adults.

To help prevent suicides, strategies such as building community, supporting life adjustments, and having frank conversations can help. For one, addressing loneliness among older adults is paramount. Social engagement can take many forms, including healthy interpersonal relationships, organizational engagement, and volunteering. In addition, the Selection, Optimization, and Compensation framework can be used to determine which activities one would like to continue to pursue and how to do so through modifications, if necessary. For example, someone who enjoys going on road trips with friends but can no longer drive long distances may decide to take group trips by train instead, keeping their treasured social connection intact. Finally, having conversations about mental health with trusted individuals, like family and healthcare professionals, is important. To that end, the 988 helpline for those in a mental health crisis is a great resource to share. By calling or texting 988, individuals can access immediate support from a trained professional and find relief from overwhelming emotions. Considering the role of guns, interventions encouraging gun safety, like unloaded and locked storage, are also beneficial. Together, these approaches can reduce the number of older adults who die by suicide.            

Although the topic of mental health has slowly begun moving into the mainstream, including older adults in these discussions will highlight this specific community’s needs and increase awareness of their unique circumstances. As a result, more focus can be given to the active reduction of older adults’ suicides and the associated risk factors. While mental health and suicide are challenges, there is hope. Ultimately, through action and conversation, older adults can receive the help necessary to navigate aging successfully.

This blog post author is a student in the course, Contemporary Perspectives on Aging, led by Nancy Morrow-Howell, PhD, the Bettie Bofinger Brown Distinguished Professor of Social Policy, at the Brown School and Director of the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging at the Institute for Public Health. The course examines current issues of aging societies, from individual, family and community perspectives and uses a multidisciplinary lens to consider the biological, social, and psychological aspects of longer lives.