Older adults are identified as a priority population for suicide prevention strategies.
Older adults make up a considerable proportion of Australia’s population. In 2016, more than one in seven people were aged 65 and over. Older adults are exposed to a range of risk factors which can increase vulnerability to suicide1.
What we know about suicide amongst older adults
Data provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that the highest age-specific suicide rate for men in 2017 was found in the 85+ age group, recording 32.8 deaths per 100, 000 persons. This rate was considerably higher than the age-specific suicide rate observed in all other age groups, for both sexes. It should be noted that the number of suicides in this age group accounted for 2.6% of all male intentional self harm deaths in 20172.
The data also showed that people aged over 65 years are more likely to have chronic health conditions present at death. Notably cancer was present in approximately 25% of suicides in persons aged over 85 years.
According to the World Health Organization, mental health conditions are under-identified and under-reported in older adults. Untreated mental illness can contribute to an increased suicide risk. Low help-seeking behaviours for mental health concerns can impact on these rates, with older adults less likely to seek professional help due to stigma, knowledge of services and available and accessibility. Suicide prevention in older adults should aim improve help-seeking behaviours and reduce stigma.
The causes of suicide are complex and multifaceted. It is important to acknowledge that an older person may never experience suicidal behaviours or thoughts. The presence of protective factors may reduce the risk of suicide.
Protective factors that can reduce the likelihood of suicidal behaviour among older adults living in Australia include:
- strong social networks
- community participation
- learning new skills or having a hobby
- maintaining physical health
- protective factors for women include: self-sufficiency, help seeking,
- greater ability to adapt
- connection to land, spirituality and ancestry, kinship networks and cultural continuity (such as being a role model and educating the young) for older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Factors that increase the risk of suicide amongst older adults living in Australia include:
- bereavement social isolation
- losing the ability to live independently
- sensory impairment and losses (particularly with men)
- financial difficulty
- poor physical health and or/chronic pain
- disease existing mental health conditions.
The diversity of older adults
It is important that the diversity of older adults be acknowledged: there is no single older adult community. Consideration should also be given to other identity-driven needs and roles an older adult may have, which may overlap with other communities including: