Suicide among the elderly did not increase at the start of the epidemic, study suggests

Key Takeaways

  • 7.8% of US veterans reported suicidal ideation in about a year during the pandemic, and only 0.3% of them indicated a suicide attempt during the pandemic.
  • 2.6% of seniors reported suicidal thoughts during the pandemic. Few of these individuals had a history of mental illness.
  • Veterans who reported receiving COVID-19 were more than twice as likely to consider suicide, with lack of social connection and lack of emotional support considered the strongest risk factors for developing suicidal ideation during the pandemic.

UPDATE: Starting January 17, 2023, all US veterans are eligible for free emergency mental health care. This applies even if the individual is not enrolled in the VA system. The policy covers the cost of an ambulance ride, up to 30 days of inpatient care, and up to 90 days of outpatient care.

Veterans are at high risk for mental health challenges and substance use problems. A study has been published Jama Psychiatry found that the elderly did not report an increase in suicide nearly 10 months into the epidemic.

The study measured changes in suicidal behavior from before the pandemic to about 10 months to identify potential risk factors.

Given how the elderly may be particularly affected by the Taliban occupation of Afghanistan, mental health support should be a priority for them.

Understanding research

The study was conducted with 3078 seniors, with a mean age of 63.2 years, of whom 91.6% were male, while 79.3% were non-Hispanic white, 10.3% were non-Hispanic black, and 6% were Hispanic.

Suicidal ideation decreased from 10.6% in November 2019 to 7.8% in November 2020, with 2.6% developing new-onset suicidal ideation during the follow-up period. The strongest risk factors for developing suicidal ideation are low social support, prior suicide attempts, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, recent alcohol use problems, COVID-19 infection, and loss of social relationships during the pandemic.

A limitation of this study is that suicidality is likely underestimated, as studies have shown that participants are hesitant to report stigmatizing behaviors, as is the primarily older white male sample.

Resilience in crisis

Mental health professional, and US Coast Guard veteran, Xander Kigg, LCSW, says, “It doesn’t surprise me that veterans would be able to gain resilience during a crisis. That’s what we’re trained to do.”

Xander Keigh, LCSW

For many veterans, going through something like a serious illness alone can be devastating, without social support.

— Xander Kigg, LCSW

Given his personal experience with navigating military service, Keig explains that many veterans feel disconnected and disconnected from a social network after being released from the military. “This often leads to feelings of worthlessness and then suicidal ideation,” he says.

Keig highlighted, “It also doesn’t surprise me that suicidal thoughts have increased among those who contracted Covid-19. For many veterans going through something like a serious illness without social support and alone can be devastating. Thankfully, it was only suicidal thoughts. , not actual suicide attempts that increased.”

Supporting veterans saves lives

Adult and geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Brain Health Center at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence St. John Health Center, David A. “Contrary to expectations, rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts decreased in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Merrill, MD, PhD.

Merrill explained that further study is needed to understand why the pandemic prompted some veterans to reach out and connect with others. “We know that lack of social connection during the pandemic was the strongest risk for the development of suicidal ideation,” he says.

David A. Merrill, MD, Ph.D

We know that lack of social connection during the pandemic was the strongest risk for the development of suicidal ideation.

— David A. Merrill, MD, Ph.D

Merrill explained, “Supporting seniors saves lives. Seniors who reported a decrease in suicidal thoughts also reported an increase in perceived social support during the pandemic. Seniors with COVID-19 are at increased risk of suicide. During illness that affects the body and brain, it is especially important to support seniors. time.”

In terms of mental health, Merrill explains that war trauma puts veterans at risk for PTSD, substance abuse and depression. “All of this increases the risk of death by suicide,” he says.

Merrill explained, “Studies have shown that seniors 65 and older had significantly lower rates of suicidal ideation both before and during the pandemic. In my work as a geriatric psychiatrist, I have seen many older adults who coped very well with the stress of the pandemic. Older adults have lived through a lot, and can serve as role models to younger family members and loved ones on how to handle this high-stress time.”

Stigma affects suicide

Sandeep Vaishnavi, MD, PhD, Psychiatrist, and Medical Director of the Interventional Psychiatry and Clinical Research Institute with MindPath Care Center, said, “This study suggests that contrary to fear, the rate of suicidal thoughts among the elderly actually decreased during the pandemic.”

While this is encouraging, Vaishnavi cautions that it’s important to note that this study was based on self-report. “Because suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts can be stigmatizing, the results may not be representative. It would be interesting to assess a harder endpoint like documented suicide attempts. Also, of note, only 51.8% of veterans who asked to participate did so completely, so again, this is recommended. That study may not be truly representative of the population,” he says.

Sandeep Vaishnavi, MD, Ph.D

Because suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts can be stigmatized, results may not be representative.

— Sandeep Vaishnavi, MD, Ph.D

Vaishnavi explains, “The results of this study are surprising based on our intuition that suicide rates increase during times of stress like pandemics. However, that’s why it’s important to do science, to study. Our intuitions don’t always match what the data says. Having said that, this Replication of findings is important, especially with a hard data endpoint such as documented suicide attempts.”

During the pandemic, Vaishnavi believes there has been increased awareness of the importance of behavioral health, which may improve willingness to access treatment. “This can include meditation and yoga practices. I find that with my patients, there is an increased interest in these practices to promote self-care and wellness,” he says.

What does this mean for you?

As this study suggests, US veterans did not report an increase in suicide rates between November 2019 and November 2020, but this is likely an underestimate due to stigma. Veterans are at high risk for mental health challenges due to trauma. Given their service to the country, they deserve adequate services to support their standard of living.

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