September 8 to 14 is National Suicide Prevention Week (and September is Suicide Prevention Month). It’s a time to share what we can do to prevent tragedies occurring with the ones we love and others around us.
We often hear about suicide victims when they are celebrities or if they are young, but rarely do we hear about seniors. Yet, older adults, who make up 12% of the U.S. population, account for 18% of all suicide deaths, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
To explore the topic of suicide and seniors, we spoke with Dr. Patrick Arbore, the Director of Institute on Aging’s Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and the founder of our Friendship Line. Dr. Arbore founded the Friendship Line in 1973, which is the only accredited crisis line in the country for people aged 60 years and older. Here is his advice on what to do if an older person you love or know may be in trouble.
Q: What are the signs that an older person may be having suicidal thoughts?
A: When an older adult tells you that they don’t feel as if they belong anymore, or they tell you that they feel like a burden, you must listen carefully to what they say. A perception of thwarted belongingness and believing that you are a burden to others is connected to thoughts of death. The older person becomes alienated from whatever support system they may have. For human creatures, this sense of alienation is very painful since humans are hard wired to connect with others.
Q: If you suspect an older person might be thinking about doing something rash, what should you do?
A: If an older person is thinking about death and they have the capacity to inflict self-harm, this is a crisis situation. You must act quickly if you are going to interrupt the development of their suicidal ideation. If this older adult has both the desire and the capability to end their life, your immediate action is to call 911.
However, if the person desires to end their life but does not have a plan to do so, stay in contact with them until the emotional pain subsides. Contact our Friendship Line, which is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Friendship Line staff and volunteers are ready to receive a call from both you and the older person. In San Francisco, we can arrange to make outreach calls to the senior on a daily basis in order to help create a supportive connection with them. Remember that connections to others are what bind us to life.
Q: Any other actions you can take?
A: Once the older adult is back to feeling emotionally stable, you may need to speak to someone at the Friendship Line about your own feelings. Helping other people who are suffering emotional pain is not easy. Remember to take care of yourself as well.