It was just another day in Oct. 2004 when Noel Braun’s wife Maris told him of her plans to meet a friend to exchange some books. Noel instinctively knew that his wife was lying; the first time in 42 years of their marriage. When Maris left home, Noel had a “dreadful apprehension” of the impending tragedy. Noel and Maris had frequently discussed the “darkness” in the latter’s life due to depression, and they had also frankly discussed suicide. Maris’ family had a history of suicides; although she had assured her husband of not meeting the same fate, she eventually took her life at the age of 66.
The Brauns’ tragic story is set in Jindabyne, a town in New South Wales, Australia. However, similar stories abound among older adults living anywhere in the world. In the United States, more than 41,000 suicides are recorded every year, making it the 10th leading cause of death among adults. Although suicide does not discriminate based on age, gender or ethnicity, an often-overlooked demographic group for suicide prevention efforts is older adults. In 2015, individuals aged 85 or older had the second-highest suicide rate (19.4 per 100,000 people). The suicide rate among adults aged 65 or older continues to be high. Older white men are at particularly higher risk.
What impedes suicide prevention among older adults? One possible factor is that elders grew up during a period of rudimentary mental health services. Lobotomies, considered to be an absurd and barbaric form of medical treatment, were a normal part of psychiatry. Not surprisingly, mental health services were perceived negatively. Another factor is the stigma associated with mental health, which is stronger among the elderly. Older adults also tend to self-stigmatize, which increases their reluctance or fear to seek mental health services or adhere to treatment regimens. Conversely, mental health services are often not accessible by older adults.
The United Nations has designated October 1 as International Day of Older Persons. The 2017 theme is intended to promote and strengthen the participation of older persons in social, cultural, economic, political and other activities. It aims at highlighting the enabling measures for this demographic such as securing health care and earning a regular income, which can influence the willingness of older persons’ participation. The focus will also be on technology, education and other pathways which facilitate such contributions and overcoming barriers which discriminate against the elderly.
Depression mistaken as a normal part of aging
Depression is, usually, mistakenly perceived as a normal part of aging. This increases the risk of the condition being ignored by family, friends and even the individual suffering from depression. Jo Anne Sirey, professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College and a specialist in mental health among the elderly, has carried out research on the prevalence of depression in various subpopulations of older adults. She writes that “Depression is not a normal part of aging and does not go away by itself.” Untreated depression may lead to suicide, mortality and increased morbidity, says Sirey.
Depression is a primary reason for high suicide attempts among the elderly, and many older adults are reluctant to seek help. Older men often conceal depressive symptoms, particularly in socio-cultural environments which frown upon an open display of emotional vulnerability. Increasing the risk of suicide among older adults are a host of other factors such as pain, physical illness (which increases the risk of depression), impairments in daily life functions, apprehensions about being a burden and disengagement from society. The loss of a partner or loved one, retirement and isolation increase the risk of suicide ideation.
Many individuals battle depression throughout their lives. The condition could become more intolerable with age. More importantly, they may not take the necessary steps to seek help. This can be particularly risky since there are subtle, as well as obvious, differences in the symptoms of depression among older adults and that which occurs when one is young.
Signs of suicide or depression need to be taken seriously
Family members or primary care providers who are in constant contact with elders should take signs of suicide ideation or depression very seriously. Discussions about being a burden on others, withdrawal from activities or a general disinterest in life should set off warning bells. Psychiatric professionals and institutions should alter their approach towards mental health discussions with seniors – this will be effective in educating them and their families, thereby increasing awareness and detection. It will also help in removing the stigma associated with mental illnesses.
All efforts should be made to integrate mental health services into senior community centers so that accessibility of treatment is improved keeping in mind the convenience of elders. For effective integration to take place, mental health professionals at nursing homes and retirement communities need to be more actively involved in the society or local areas. The professionals can provide mental health services without directly targeting elders through means such as talking to them at get-togethers or conducting informal lectures.
A key aspect of integrating mental health services with senior centers should be holistic treatment. Places frequented by elders for socializing and exercise, including yoga studios, aerobics centers, game rooms and cafeterias, are most suitable for introducing mental health concepts and educating older adults about the availability of services and resources.
Taking care of older adults’ mental health needs is a pressing concern. Sovereign Health, a leading mental health care provider in the U.S., understands this need and provides treatment for all kinds of mental health disorders. Sovereign Health of San Clemente, California offers a variety of customized treatment options suited to treat the person holistically. Our residential mental health facilities in California are among the best in the nation. Call our 24/7 helpline number or chat online with one of our representatives to know more about mental illness treatment centers best suited to your needs.