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
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.