By Kelly Cukrowicz, Ph.D., Texas Tech University
The popular perception is that suicide occurs most frequently among young adults and adolescents. However, research has actually shown that the rate of suicide among elderly Caucasian men in the United States is six times that of any other age group. Why is it so high? The most concerning reason is that older adult men (especially Caucasian men), are more likely to die on their first or second attempt as a result of utilizing more lethal means. Research has also shown that a variety of other factors may contribute to thoughts of suicide and suicidal behavior in older adults. These include feelings of depression, anxiety, hopelessness about the future, feeling like a burden on other people, feeling lonely or disconnected from other people, and significant stressors like the loss of a loved one.
Although people sometimes think that suicide among older adults is somehow less sad because a life has been lived, that also means so many more people have been touched by that life. To me, suicide among older adults is tragic because it is preventable. Many who die by suicide have been experiencing significant symptoms of psychological disorder at the time of their death, with Major Depressive Disorder being among the most common. Thoughts of suicide frequently lessen following successful treatment of depression. Further, social isolation and hopelessness have been linked to suicide deaths in older adults and also decrease when older adults receive psychological and medication treatment for problems like depression and anxiety.
A new theory of suicide may shed some light on suicide in older adults. In 2005, Thomas Joiner published Why People Die by Suicide. This book presents a theory about suicide indicating that adults who think about suicide are those who feel like they are a burden on others and who also feel that they aren’t connected to or cared about by others. Luckily, few who think about suicide actually attempt suicide. His theory suggests that those who will attempt or die by suicide are those who have acquired the capability to do so through dangerous or provocative activities, like previous suicide attempts, that reduce the body’s natural self-protective instincts. Ongoing research is aimed at investigating the factors mentioned above (perceptions of being a burden and feeling disconnected) and their contribution to suicide ideation and suicidal behavior in older adults.