Recognizing the warning signs of suicide in seniors

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Suicide can affect all people regardless of ethnicity, age or gender. However, suicide rates are the highest among older adults, and these numbers are on the rise.

Older adults make up 12 percent of the U.S. population but account for 18 percent of all suicides, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. And white men 85 years old or older are four times more likely to die by suicide than Americans in any other age group.

Norma Reggev, a licensed clinical social worker with the Sharp Senior Health Centers, shares risk factors and warning signs of suicide in older adults, and steps you or a loved one can take to stay safe.

Red flags

Depression is one of the leading risk factors of suicide in older adults. Often their depression is left undiagnosed or untreated.

“Depression is not a normal part of aging. It is common to experience sadness, grief and response to loss, but persistent depression that significantly impacts a person’s ability to function is not typical,” said Reggev.

Suicidal thoughts in older adults can be linked to several important risk factors. These may include:


-Substance abuse

-Being divorced or widowed

-Major changes in social roles (e.g., retirement)

-The recent death of a loved one

-Social isolation and loneliness

-Feelings of loss of independence or a sense of purpose

-Medical conditions that significantly limit functioning or life expectancy

-Feelings of hopelessness or lack of interest in future plans

Many adults experience losses as they age, including spouses, family and friends who die, go to a nursing home or move away to live with family.

“These losses, in addition to a decreased ability to perform daily activities, are factors that increase social isolation in older adults and can cultivate a sense of uselessness and helplessness,” said Reggev.

Suicide prevention

Prevention of suicide in seniors may require many strategies. An older adult can take several steps to reduce suicide risk and stay safe:

-Talk to someone if they are struggling with depression

-Join a support group if they have recently lost a spouse or had another major life event

-Get out of the house and do something they enjoy

-Engage in meaningful activities

-Seek mental health and substance abuse services

-Talk to their doctor

-Have regular medical visits to manage an illness or alleviate pain

“It is important for friends and family members of older adults to recognize the warning signs, assess risk and take steps to help prevent an older adult from taking their own life,” said Reggev.

How to help

Suicide intervention must be aggressive.

“Older adult suicides are often more planned, determined and fatal,” says Reggev. “It is important to focus prevention efforts on educating both the general public and seniors.”

-Taking action at home

-Check in on a loved one — visit them often and regularly

-Lend an ear — take the time to talk to an older adult

-Educate older adults on ways to develop skills in problem-solving, conflict resolution and coping with life’s problems

-Dispose of out-of-date medications

-Taking action in the community

-Promote awareness that suicide in seniors is a public health problem that is preventable

-Implement strategies to reduce the stigma associated with aging

-Encourage home health aides and long-term care employees to become more aware of the signs of depression in older adult patients

-Improve access to mental health, substance abuse and social services for older adults

Community resources

Resources are available for you or a loved one who may need to speak with someone.

Sharp Grossmont Hospital

If you or an older adult you love is dealing with suicidal thoughts, Sharp Grossmont Hospital Behavioral Health Services can help. Learn more about mental health care for older adults at 619-740-4800.

National Suicide Prevention

For additional assistance, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.

The Friendship Line

Seniors and adults with disabilities can call this 24-hour, toll-free hotline at 800-971-0016. A trained volunteer who specializes in offering caring conversation with older adults can provide crisis intervention, information and referrals.

This article features experts from Sharp Senior Health Centers. For more health stories visit