Understanding the “Why” Behind Suicide in Older Adults

Most people will be affected by suicide in their lifetime. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2014 more than one million adults self-reported a suicide attempt and 9.4 million adults self-reported serious thoughts of suicide. Suicide, according to the same report, is the tenth leading cause of death for Americans. This makes discussions about suicide imperative.

Understanding the "Why" Behind Suicide in Older Adults
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Understanding Why

During therapy for people who have lost a loved one to suicide, the question of why always echoes throughout their narrative. They want to know why their loved one took their life. They also want to know why they didn’t see the signs, many times feeling that if they had paid more attention they could have stopped it. A painful reality, even for mental health professionals, is that many times there are either no signs or the signs are inconsistent.

It’s important to acknowledge the following:

The Person’s Emotional State

Understanding the emotional state of someone who commits suicide often helps loved ones with their grief process. Depression is the most common risk factor, but the label “depression” is also ambiguous. Something I work hard to convey to grieving loved ones: The emotional state of someone who completes a suicide is a feeling that’s unfamiliar to most people. Depression covers an enormous range of distress, including helplessness and hopelessness.

We all have times when we feel helpless or hopeless, but for most of us, these feelings are transient. It’s often hard for family members to understand the level of morbid despondency that people grappling with the idea of suicide are going through because it’s something unfamiliar to their own emotional experience. Those in deep despair often don’t even have the words to describe their own pain, making it nearly impossible to articulate their emotional state to others. This in turn makes it impossible for family members to intervene and help.

Suicide is not about being weak; it happens when someone sees no other way out. And as outsiders looking in, we have to remember that the hopelessness can seem irrational to us, but for the person who kills themselves, it’s not.

Suicide is not about being weak; it happens when someone sees no other way out.

Suicide Attempts

Suicide attempts are sometimes a sign, but not always. People who describe suicidal thoughts or make an attempt destined to fail are desperately begging for help. They want people to hear the depth of their distress and they want to receive treatment. They want to feel better; they just don’t know how to. Wanting to feel better is a sign of hope. Although, once an attempt is made, we know the person is at risk. If hope diminishes, then risk for suicide increases.

Accepting Our Own Helplessness

Most times when someone has decided to take their life they show no signs, because they don’t want to be stopped. As hard as it is to accept that someone we love was suffering and we saw nothing, knowing that it wasn’t our fault can facilitate healing. Sometimes we have to accept our own helplessness.

How and When to Seek Help

If you notice someone close to you displaying or communicating feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, reach out to a mental health professional immediately.

Exacerbating depression, loss of interest in activities, lack of self-care, particularly poor hygiene, should all be taken very seriously, as well as a past attempt. Occasionally, an increase in mood can be a sign that someone plans to kill themselves. This seems paradoxical, but it’s not. If someone has been feeling profoundly hopeless, the decision to take action to end the hopelessness actually relieves their hopelessness. An increased mood following a serious depression without any known reason should also be taken seriously.

Loved ones are encouraged to reach out for support too. Talking through the helplessness and guilt that loved ones often struggle with can help people with their grief process. Suicide will affect most of us in our lifetime; there’s no reason to go through the grief alone.

Editor’s note: September is National Suicide Prevention Month. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, reach out to a mental health professional or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or log on to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

About the Writer

Jacqueline Simon Gunn

Jacqueline is a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and author. She holds master’s degrees in both forensic psychology and existential/ phenomenological psychology, and has a doctorate in clinical psychology. Her specialties include eating disorders, trauma, interpersonal and relationship difficulties, alternative lifestyles and sports psychology.

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