In Australia, eight to nine people a day take their own lives. That’s up to 3100 people each year.
But this is not just a young person’s health crisis – older people, particularly men, are at risk too.
This in borne out in other countries as well. In the US, older adults are 12 per cent of the population, yet they account for about 18 per cent of suicide cases.
In 2017, researchers used the Queensland Suicide Register to study suicide factors among 978 older Australians. They found suicide rates for men increased with age.
Risk factors changed with age too. Younger men were more burdened by financial loss and relationship breakdowns while older men struggled with the death of a spouse, chronic health issues and loneliness.
According to researcher Diego De Leo, older men suicide at alarming rates. Men over 80 are particularly vulnerable. Accurate figures are hard to ascertain as some actions, such as skipping an essential medicine, appear to be accidental.
It is often the accumulation of many factors that leads to thoughts of suicide.
Some are chronic pain, dependence on others, loneliness, loss of physical strength, feeling of abandonment and loss of meaning in life. Another influence is knowing others who have suicided.
These challenges do not automatically lead to depression and suicidal thoughts. The pandemic showed older people who lived more in the moment coped better than young people.
De Leo lists some warning signs that can indicate someone is considering suicide.
These include appearing sad or depressed most of the time, being unable to sleep or sleeping all the time, frequent and dramatic mood swings, neglecting personal hygiene, and personal appearance, not wanting to see friends or family or engage in social activities, putting their business in order and making a will. Other signs can be giving away objects of emotional significance, talking about death – “I’ve had enough” – and making unexpected visits to relatives and friends.
Older people are often invisible. They are told they are a burden on resources, weak and vulnerable. This can prey on someone’s mind. Changing these social attitudes will help reduce feelings of worthlessness and suicidal thoughts.
As for treatment, if you have concerns about a family member speak to their doctor or health professional. Suicidal ideas are a serious concern. Watchfulness and professional help are needed.
Sometimes the underlying reasons for despair can be addressed. For instance, with chronic pain, perhaps a new drug or a hypnosis program will help.
Sometimes there are losses that can’t be recovered, such as the death of a child or a lifelong partner. Counselling, drug treatment and social support is the best way forward.
If you are caring for an elderly family member, don’t wait for a crisis. You can protect your loved one’s health by enriching their social life.
Encourage them to join a club or join with them. Work with their personality, skills and preferences. Men may prefer attending information talks at the library to coffee mornings.
Start with activities that don’t have high conversational demands – visit a beach and watch the swimmers, see a movie, or arrange transport to church. Loneliness is a risk factor for suicide we can all do something about.
If you need support call Lifeline 131 114 or Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636.
Kendall Morton is director of Home Care Assistance Sunshine Coast to Wide Bay.