SAMHSA has a new resource to help address a misunderstood behavioral health issue among older adults — suicide.

Promoting Emotional Health and Preventing Suicide: A Toolkit for Senior Centers was released in September to coincide with National Suicide Prevention Week. Its release comes at an important time, as death by suicide is a growing public health concern.

More than 7,000 people age 65 or older died by suicide in 2013, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control — a figure that places the suicide rate among older adults higher than the general population. Suicide rates are particularly high among older men — higher than among any other group in the United States. And these figures do not include those who have made suicide attempts or who suffer from the emotional pain of suicidal thoughts.

“There is a sense that depression is a normal part of aging and that there’s nothing you can do about it,” says Chris Miara, MS, senior project director for the SAMHSA-funded Suicide Prevention Resource Center. “But it’s really important to convey that it’s not a normal part of aging and that there are ways to help. A lot of older people can have a good quality of life if they can get the help they need.”

What You Can Do

If you work with older adults and someone you know may be experiencing risk factors for suicide:

■ Talk with the person in a caring, nonjudgmental way.

■ Encourage the person to attend wellness sessions or classes offered by your senior center.

■ Connect the person to supportive services available from the senior center (e.g., Meals on Wheels programs, assistance with financial planning).

■ Connect the person to sources of counseling or other forms of support.

Source: Promoting Emotional Health and Preventing Suicide: A Toolkit for Senior Centers

SAMHSA’s toolkit aims to increase access to help by providing information and resources to people who work closely with seniors so they can identify those who might be at risk and offer the necessary help and referrals. SAMHSA’s goal is for this to be a key resource not only for senior centers, but also for those who serve older adults such as the providers of meals or transportation services, so they can assist people who might not otherwise be reached through senior centers.

Older adults, like their younger cohorts, are more likely to have suicidal thoughts if they have depression and mood disorders or substance use problems.

But unlike younger people, they are also more likely to be dealing with other issues that can produce suicidal thoughts, including medical conditions and pain that affect function and autonomy. Many older adults also face social isolation that sometimes results from the loss of a loved one, the inability to get around without help, or the feeling that they are a burden to others.

In the case of those who are living alone, it’s often difficult to spot the warning signs that accompany suicide. Making matters worse, those in older generations are often less likely to seek out help.

“A lot of older adults don’t want to admit that they need help or they don’t realize they need help,” Ms. Miara says. “But they are much more willing to talk to someone if they are in a familiar setting and feel comfortable.”

That’s where senior centers come in, says Rosalyn Blogier, LCSW-C, a public health advisor in SAMHSA’s Suicide Prevention Branch.

Senior centers play an important role in reaching older adults who might otherwise be unwilling to seek help. They can also provide important, trusted spaces for screenings and consultations.

With that in mind, the toolkit provides a number of resources for senior centers that are interested in creating educational programming about behavioral health — and for developing an environment that focuses on promoting wellness and healthy coping skills.

“One of the key lessons we’ve learned with this project is that senior centers realize they play a vital role in behavioral health. But they realize that they can’t do it on their own,” Ms. Miara says. “To do it well, they really need to partner with behavioral health programs in their communities.”

As the U.S. population ages, those partnerships will become particularly important. Between 2012 and 2050, the number of Americans over the age of 65 is expected to almost double in size from 43.1 million to 83.7 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

With that growth comes a growing realization that behavioral health among older adults requires increased attention.

“We’re very hopeful that it will meet an expressed need to help those who work with older adults,” Ms. Blogier says. “Suicide prevention is everybody’s responsibility and we want to do everything we can to help those who work with older adults to understand how they can address this important behavioral health issue.”

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