What Happens When There Is a Suicide?

May 13, 2024

image of sign saying, You Are Not Alone, to support mental health and suicide prevention

It happened years ago but I’ll never forget. The telephone call came in on a weekend just before Christmas from my immediate supervisor at work. I never got calls from work on a weekend so I could not imagine the reason for the call. My supervisor, never one to mince words, said that our Boss had committed suicide. I do not remember the rest of the conversation but hung up the phone in shock. In the days following at work we talked about how none of us were aware of what caused this sudden death. He seemed “fine” at our last day of work before the holiday weekend. He was a good boss and I wondered what I could have done to help prevent this tragic death.

Suicide is sudden to those who are left to deal with the unexpected death. It can be accomplished in many ways but gun deaths are the most common particularly among men. According to an article funded by the SCAN Foundation (3/4/24), people 75 and older have the highest suicide rate among all age groups. This is largely driven by older men. Men experience death by suicide nearly 17 times more than women of the same age. Although suicide occurs among Black & Hispanic males, white males age 85 and older are 5.6 times greater to commit suicide than any other.

This group of older adults dying by suicide is growing by almost five times the rate of the overall population. Why is this? There are a unique set of circumstances that happen as a person ages. These can include a decline in physical health, reduced mental acuity, losing people in your social network, inability to participate and the loss of a spouse, other loved ones and friends. It is not uncommon when these situations occur that a person becomes anxious or depressed. Although it can become a diagnosable mental illness, most of the time these times of depression or anxiety are not considered mental illness.

Statistics offer strong evidence that individuals who live alone and are isolated have a diminished sense of well-being. If these individuals are also having difficulty completing every daily living tasks to help them remain independent, reach shows that they are four times more likely to become depressed. Interestingly, the statistics increase even more if the individual meets the criteria for “low income”. For these persons it can be six times more likely to have depressive symptoms.

By the time an individual qualifies for Medicare at 65 or earlier for qualifying disabilities, everyone has interacted with the health care system. Unfortunately, according to research assessing as a suicide risk seldom occurs. In a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study 45 percent of those committing suicide saw a physician within the prior 30 days. Thirty-six percent of the same group had an ER visit, missed opportunities in those situations to access treatment and save deaths by suicide. Furthermore, current behavioral health programs often neglect behavioral health issues of older adults.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in a November 2023 report states that the suicide rate is at its highest in 80 years. More than half of the deaths were by firearms. Since the pandemic in 2022-23 and the country’s lockdown deaths by suicide have been sharply increased. Regardless of age risk factors include: prior suicide attempts, history of depression, mental illness, alcohol or drug abuse, physical illness and feelings of isolation.

What can we do both for others and ourselves? How can we move forward or be there for another person that now is alone or at this point in their lives cannot see a reason to continue on?

  • It’s nice to have time alone – BUT not all the time. Go outside & take a 5 minute walk. Say hi to the horses next door or the neighbor who is sweeping her porch.
  • Send a card; write a note to someone you know. Write a few lines of what’s happening in your life. Cut an article from a magazine or newspaper you think they like.
  • Text, call or e mail someone you know. If they’re alone, make a point of contacting them once/twice a month. Even those tiny messages can help you and them stay connected.
  • Find a way to stay connected to your community whether it’s in your neighborhood, your church, or your family. Put forward a regular comment or conversation to feed that connection.
  • Ask, ask, ask for help & support from your primary care physician or the nurse practitioner particularly if you’ve lost someone close to you or know you’re depressed. Don’t be afraid to ask for a referral to a therapist to talk with. There are some therapists who accept Medicare reimbursement.
  • Talk to your family about your concerns, needing help completing daily tasks, driving, etc. Be open to accepting a bit of help to help with your continued independence.
  • Look for activities that are geared toward your age & interests. Most communities offer programs that are available for a nominal fee.

Suicidal thoughts can occur with anyone particularly when faced with life challenges. However, it can be a wake up call when suicidal thoughts come up to know it’s time to talk to someone. It may be a spouse, a good friend, an adult child or a sibling. Bring it up with your physician at the next visit or call the Mental Health Hotline such as WellSpace, a suicide prevention hotline that runs hotlines in 32 counties in northern California.

Carol S. Heape, MSW, CMC is the Founder of Elder Options, Inc., a care managed home care organization supporting client/families since 1988 throughout the Sacramento Region.