Although seniors and suicide were things I dealt with often as a counselor, I can only imagine the personal pain and devastation someone must feel when they lose a loved one this way. And the topic could not be timelier, because as most of you already know, actor and comedian Robin Williams died two weeks ago on August 11, 2014. He was found in his home – the victim of a suicide – at age 63.
I was just as shocked to hear about this as anyone else. I’ll fully admit that I cried on and off for a week. The media and his family list multiple possible reasons for the way he died, including money and marriage troubles, career issues, and his recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. It was also believed he suffered from depression, anxiety, or perhaps bi-polar disorder.
Robin Williams – like many who choose suicide – was likely suffering for a long time before deciding to take his own life. One cannot help but bear witness to the outpouring of love and admiration that occurred immediately following his death. One also wonders if knowing how beloved he was would have changed anything, and given him the will to go on.
Seniors and suicide: some possible causes
When I was a senior counselor, we said that suicide often resulted when a person’s “perceived obstacles outmatched their perceived coping skills.” Today, seniors have both enormous obstacles (poor health, friends aging and dying, etc.) and either a lack of coping skills (health-related, cognition-related, or from losing their independence) or a perceived lack. Depression, bi-polar disorder, and other mental illnesses can contribute to these obstacles, causing a person to doubt their abilities to overcome or cope with them.
Coping skills for depressed seniors
The importance of helping a depressed senior build and maintain coping skills cannot be overstated. Several salient skills include the following:
- Talking about their feelings (even the really dark ones)
- Expressing their emotions in non-verbal forms (journaling, painting, and the like)
- Taking any prescribed psychotropic medications on a daily basis
- Keeping any appointments with their therapist or psychiatrist
- Letting others know when their mood is getting lower, or if they feel suicidal
- Remembering to engage in any hobbies and activities they enjoy, and socializing with others
Seniors and suicide: a preventable tragedy
If a senior you love suffers from a mental illness, or you feel they’re at risk for one, take proactive steps. The Institute on Aging offers several programs to prevent suicide, including a nationally accredited crisis line that is offered round the clock, seven days a week. Since isolation is a risk factor for both depression and suicide, this is “literally a life line that hasn’t gone unanswered since 1973,” according to the Institute on Aging’s Dr. Patrick Arbore. The center handled 80,000 calls last year, and 100,000 calls this year so far.
Resources for you and your senior
It’s important to understand that depression is not a normal part of aging. If your think your senior loved one may be depressed — or possibly suicidal — there are several things you can do.
One strategy is to get in touch with your senior’s physician, psychologist, or psychiatrist, if they have one. They can assess the patient and come up with a diagnosis and plan for tackling the issue. If your senior is not agreeable to this type of intervention, here are several resources you can turn to:
- NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health)
- NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
- SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education)
Seniors and suicide don’t have to go hand-in-hand
Depression, other mental illnesses, and suicidal urges are always difficult to comprehend and completely personal. Many experts on the subject have expressed as much in the wake of Robin Williams’ death. The sad truth is, we will probably never know what drove Williams to commit such a desperate and lonely act. It is the same for many individuals. All we can do is reach out to friends and loved ones in order to prevent future tragedies like this.
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home senior care. Contact us to find out more.