WATCH: The complicated relationship between aging and suicide

The complicated relationship between the elderly and suicide

FARGO — According to national data, white males over 85 are at the highest risk of suicide. On the surface, that might suggest depression could be a symptom of aging.

A Sanford Health psychologist says that isn't necessarily the case, and that society shouldn't treat depression in old age as unavoidable.

"I hear that a lot of times from some of my family members saying: 'well, you know they're getting up there, they just get kind of depressed,'" said Sanford psychologist Dr. Jon Ulven. "That's something that as a community we really need to fight against."


From 1999 to 2016, more than 230,000 people between the ages of 45 and 64 died by suicide. But why?

Ulven points to the work of clinical psychologist and suicide expert Thomas Joiner , whose interpersonal theory of suicide suggests risk comes from the combination of three factors: a person's own "perceived burdensomeness," "thwarted belongingness," and a desire to commit suicide.

Those first two issues can be common in the elderly.

"You have pain associated with isolation and that sense of feeling like a burden. It can put those factors together and have a person at increased risk," said Dr. Ulven.

There are signs that can show someone is fighting with depression

"Does the person appear withdrawn? Does the person appear irritable? Is there a change in the person?" Dr. Ulven said.

Insomnia, signs of agitation and nightmares can also be signs. If you notice these things, it's OK to talk to the person about it.

"One of the myths that often comes up is the idea that if I ask someone about suicide that they're going to be more likely to do it," said Dr. Ulven. "That is one of the biggest myths we have out there, we have no evidence to suggest that asking someone about suicide increases their risk. In fact, what we do have is evidence to the contrary — that asking someone can save lives."


If you or a loved one are experiencing any symptoms or believe there is any risk, the suicide hotline is 1-800-273-8255

For information on how to approach loved ones about suicide click HERE.

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