The University of Connecticut’s Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy has been bringing together leading figures at the forefront of social and behavioral research from diverse academic fields to the university for 20 years. Each semester, multiple lecturers present a panel on their research. On Thursday, Timothy Schmutte, Psy.D and assistant professor of psychiatry in the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health, gave a talk on suicide prevention among aging adults.
It has been found that suicide rates get higher in America as a person gets older with a sharp increase around the age of 75. In addition, suicide rates have been steadily increasing since around the year 2000, an all-time low following a decades-long steady decline in rates since the Great Depression. In 2034, for the first time in history, seniors in the United States will outnumber minors. Clearly, suicide is an essential issue, especially among older people, that will only get worse following current trends as the years go by.
Before Schmutte began discussing possible solutions, he presented findings on possible causes for the greater suicide risk in senior demographics. Researchers have reached a general consensus on the “5 D’s” that have been identified as risk factors. The first is depression, a condition that has become more common in recent years not only among seniors but in Americans of all age groups. The second is disconnectedness. Seniors have fewer opportunities to socialize than younger people. The third root is deadly means. Older people have greater access to firearms and other deadly weapons, making a possible suicide attempt easier and more fatal. Disease also plays a factor with increased rates of mental illness among the older population. Finally, disability has been identified as another cause.
Schmutte added a sixth D to the discussion: dementia. Seniors, the main section of the population at risk for the condition, with dementia are 53% more likely to commit suicide than the undiagnosed. In addition, most deaths occur shortly following a diagnosis.
How do we help prevent suicide in aging adults? Schmutte argued that current suicide prevention strategies are much more geared purely towards those with suicidal thoughts when in reality, the vast majority of people who have such thoughts never actually attempt suicide. He discussed how the best way to prevent suicide is to shift focus specifically to those who are high risk and revamp methods to prevent suicidal actions.
Schmutte also went over a variety of warning signs for people at high risk including talking about feeling trapped or being a burden, increased alcohol and drug use and withdrawing from others. Finally, he discussed that suicide prevention strategies should be more specific in general. Different methods should be used depending on the target audience. Methods can be universal in scope (e.g. increased firearm safety and mental health literacy) to indicative, specifically for individual people at risk.
Thankfully, there has been a much greater focus on specific suicide prevention in recent years. With further future developments, as well as addressing root causes at the source, we can work towards providing a more hopeful future for everyone.