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Sad Facts on Seniors and Suicide

March 13, 2000|JERRY HICKS

Most of us flunked Mark Odom's quiz on suicide recently at an Orange County Violence Prevention Coalition meeting:

"What method is used most by elderly males to commit suicide?" asked Odom, who runs a mental health program for seniors at the county's Health Care Agency.

"Firearms," many shouted at once. Right, he said.

"How about for elderly females?" he followed up.

"Poison," several offered. Wrong.

"Pills," someone ventured. Also wrong.

The answer: Firearms again, for women as well as men.

That wasn't the only data on suicides that surprised me at the coalition gathering.

Suicide is the leading cause of injury-related death in Orange County, a new Health Care Agency study shows--235 in 1997 (its most recent figures) compared to 222 motor vehicle deaths and 112 homicides. And those over 65 have the highest suicide rate of any age group. Another dramatic point: The ratio of suicide deaths to suicide attempts is about 1 to 150-200 for those under 65. But for those over 65, that stat takes a gargantuan leap to 1 in 4.

"Most people thinking of suicide are ambivalent," Odom said. "The elderly are more certain."

More than 90% of those seniors suffer from depression, which leads to a sense of hopelessness. It usually stems from losses in their lives, such as failing health, a spouse's death or being forced into retirement.

But medication issues--such as side effects from prescription drugs or taking the wrong medication--are a grave problem too.

"An older person, disoriented, wonders if he's taken his heart medicine. He can't remember, so he takes it again, just to be safe. But now he's taken the wrong dosage," Odom said.

Depression for the elderly is treatable. The problem is getting seniors to realize they need treatment.

For example, 84% of the elderly who attempted suicide had seen a physician within the previous month. But less than one-third of them had seen any type of mental health care provider during that time.

When a suicide risk is recognized, that's where Odom comes in. He heads a county team called Older Adult Services. It makes the initial contact with seniors in potential trouble, then helps find the right treatment program from a myriad of local resources.

"We try to create awareness for them that they even have a problem," Odom said.

The first step, of course, is getting a foot in the door.

" 'Go away!' Our outreach people hear that all the time," Odom said. "Sometimes we go back five, six times, just trying to get people to yell at us from the door instead of the window. But our people are persistent; we know someone there needs help."

Among the various statistics I heard at the coalition session, here was the most startling: Depression, at 90%, has a partner. Alcoholism runs a close second, in the high 80% range for those at suicide risk.

Family members usually don't even know it.

"We've found booze bottles hidden in toilet tanks, buried in the backyard or hidden behind curtains," Odom said. "Many seniors believe the best medicine is available at the corner liquor store."

If you know a senior, a neighbor, or a family member you believe suffers from serious depression, consider giving Older Adult Services a call at (714) 850-8441.

Readers may reach Hicks by calling (714) 966-7789 or e-mail to

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