By LAURA ENDERSON
An update to the Elder Suicide in Virginia: 2003-2010 report from the Virginia Violent Death Reporting System was released in late March. This report is an update to a previous report, which examines suicide among Virginia residents 60 years of age and older.
“Hopefully the report will raise awareness about suicide risk for elder adults,” VVDRS Coordinator for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Marc Leslie, said. “Most people don’t think about elders and suicide, which leads to less awareness about risk for suicide. These risks include physical health problems, mental health problems, marital disruption, and access to prescribed medication.”
There are many factors to this report, but it ultimately shows that elder suicide risk is highest in southwest Virginia at 19.9 percent, compared to the lowest in Northern Virginia at 12.4 percent. In Pulaski County in particular, the elder suicide rate is 30.5 percent out of a percentage of 23.4 percent of the population in Pulaski that is 60 years of age or older.
“Unfortunately, it could be any number of factors that lead to suicidal ideation,”said Katie Greatti, Program Coordinator for the Suicide Prevention team at The Crisis Center. “Retirement, death of a loved one, loss of purpose, or mental and health problems are some factors typically associated with elder suicide. As a community we need to keep in mind that a crisis is different for everyone. No suicide is the same.”
The study also found that elder males have a higher risk of suicide at 15.6 percent. The risk for suicide increases for men with age, eventually more than doubling, but marriage decreases that risk.
“In general, suicide risk is higher in rural (areas), among males, among whites, and among older adults,” said Leslie. “Southwest Virginia tends to be rural, white, and with an older population than the rest of the state.”
For women, marital status has little effect, and suicide rates usually decrease with age.
Mental and physical health issues were the two most common circumstances shaping elder suicides. Metal health issues were a factor for 51 percent, higher for women at 86 percent than men at 47 percent. Physical health problems for a factor for 50 percent, greater for men at 53 percent than women at 39 percent
Nearly half, 48 percent, of elders suicide decedents were not employed at the time of death, and 86 percent of suicides took place at home.
Most suicides were by a firearm, at 72 percent, with poison following at 11 percent. Firearm use is also the highest in southwest Virginia, at 83 percent.
“Family and friends can take steps to limit access by locking up firearms or ammunition, or removing them from the home if they are worried about suicide,” said Leslie. “It should be cautioned, however, that these ‘means restrictions’ should not be used by themselves and should be coupled with other prevention measures.”
Men are more likely to use a firearm, at 80 percent, and women are more likely to use poison at 37 percent, with 68 percent of poisoning through medications.
“The issue of persons using their own medications, often mental health and pain medications, as a fatal suicide method presents a serious quandary for medical professionals and mental health professionals,” said Leslie. “There are steps that can be taken by prescribers, such as how much they prescribe at one time. Concerned family members and friends can take steps to limit access to medications by locking them up, but this is not always possible.”
The study also revealed that 56 percent of elders were not known to show clear warnings for suicide.
“Most people who disclosed intent to attempt suicide do so to their close friends, family, and intimate partners,” said Leslie. “This means that the general public is most often in the position to respond to a suicide threat. Often, suicide threats are not taken seriously because persons think suicide is a rare event or something that only happens among teenagers or college students.”
But although suicide can go unnoticed, there are programs to help elders who need assistance or for worried family members.
“I encourage community members, including family and friends of the elderly, to participate in a training or seek out local support groups to become more educated on resources available to them and overcome the stigma of suicide,” said Greatti.
The Crisis Center offers trainings and materials free of charge through the Virginia Department of Health and The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and LivingWorks. They also work with other local organizations, like schools and primary care facilities, to find ways to improve suicide rates.
Another program that is offered is Just Checking. This program provides daily companionship calls to elderly and home bound participants to check that they are taking medications, have access to needed services including Adult Protective Services if they need to report mistreatment by caregivers or family, and provide them with someone to listen.
The 24 hour national hotlines, 1800-273-TALK and 1800-SUICIDE, are also always available.
“We hope that by continuing to provide these services to the community, that southwest Virginia can have community members that are willing and able to help those at risk for suicide,” said Greatti.