Suicide ranks as the eleventh leading cause of death in the United States. We have lost loved ones across the generations.
While there are many factors that contribute to suicide, an important new study identifies two factors that have been associated with increased risk for suicidal thought and behavior across the lifespan – hopelessness and lack of connectedness to others.
Hopelessness may be driven by different circumstances across the generations, but it generally equates to a feeling of despair, of no hope for change in the future. It is encompassed in the Three I’s of a situation that feels intolerable, interminable and inescapable.
Lack of connectedness will differ depending on age and expectations but generally equates to the feeling of not belonging, loneliness, lack of connection to those who care, lack of actual social contacts or perceived lack of social contacts. Hopelessness underscores it with the assumption that it will never change.
The study’s authors, Stephanie Daniel and David Goldston examine these factors in each age group with the goal of identifying cognitive-behavioral interventions that might reduce risk. Beyond their valuable intended goal, the study has additional potential.
It is worth remembering that there was a time when family members of many generations lived together. Be it on a farm or in a three story building in the city, family members directly or unwittingly were involved with each other in a way that often protected them from despair and loneliness.
Protection across Generations
The Older Generation
Informed Friends and Family: Much as we have stressed the importance of parents and significant adults understanding the warning signs of suicide in teens and young adults – we need adult children, friends and health professionals to recognize the same in the older generation.
Recognizing Depression- Depression, one of the conditions most commonly associated with suicide in older adults, is a widely under-recognized and undertreated medical illness. Research reports that many
older adults who die by suicide visited a physician within a month before death. Perhaps projecting how they might feel if older, ill or facing the loss of friends, family members and even health care professionals may too often assume that depression fits the circumstances of the elderly.
The reverse is true.
Facilitating Social Connection
Protection from the hopelessness and loneliness that can risk suicidal thinking is enhanced social connection. Elder adults may be aware that they need and enjoy each other’s company but may despair as they lose a friend, can no longer drive or feel their physical illness makes socializing impossible. Family members who see the value in advocating for, transporting or finding a way to facilitate participation of elder friends and relatives with their peers play a crucial role.
Work, altruism, and gratitude are antidotes to hopelessness and often foster social connection.
The Middle-aged – Baby Boomer Generation
It has come as a surprise that middle-aged adults have registered the highest suicide rate in the country, even higher than the elder population. Of this group, men age 45-54 have the highest rate of suicide. Gender here is crucial – across ages, men die by suicide far more frequently than women – although women make more attempts.
It has been hypothesized that economic meltdown, the unemployment rate and lack of affordable health care may contribute to the despair of this middle-aged group, all of which are relevant in terms of hopelessness and lack of social connection.
Particularly for men, status, viability, and social contacts are often associated with work. Unemployment becomes not only a financial problem but the loss of a social network. Women have more comfort and confidantes in work and non-work friends and are less defined only in terms of their job or profession. Women are also more likely to acknowledge emotional needs and seek help.
Caring for Each Other
Because the middle-aged generation is sandwiched between elder parents and young adults and teens, they may benefit from advocating for and caring for the other generations but they may need to utilize each other to address hopelessness and social isolation.
Partner Care – Those who have partners have the benefit of someone to observe signs of hopelessness and isolation and to respond. They are in a position to seek professional help with their partner, to remind their partner of his/her multi-dimensional roles as father, spouse, brother etc. as well as provider, to problem solve economic issues, to underscore the reasons to live, to recall the resiliency that has worked for them in the past, and to hold out hope for the future by staying connected.
Buddy Care – One the most powerful antidotes to the barriers for seeking help is to hear a buddy acknowledge that he has been depressed and hopeless and that he benefited from getting professional help. Most people help themselves as well as their friends when they step-up- be it recommending a mental health professional, helping with job prospects, taking some time to share a sport or just spending time and checking in. As they say with uniformed service groups – no one knows your buddy like you.
Group Care – Groups are a proven way to address hopelessness and isolation. Groups provide validation, problem solving techniques, normalization of feelings, opportunities to help others and the feeling of support from others.
Teens and Young Adults – The Future Generation
The risk of suicide in the teen and college age population continues to frighten and startle us. For those groups the inability to see beyond the immediate situation, the lack of experience with seeking or getting help and the fear of rejection and feelings of vulnerability can create great hopelessness. For them the lack of social connection and social stigma implied in the loss of a friend, cyber bullying, letting down the team, or breaking up with a boyfriend can become a life or death situation.
The need to protect and care for each other may be a natural and powerful way to reduce suicide risk across generations.
Photo by Samantha Marx, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.
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Last reviewed: 11 Nov 2011