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Senior Issues

For Those Who Want Help,
Treatment Can Be Effective

By Abigail Trafford

     The surgeon general has determined that suicide is a major health hazard for the elderly and it's time to reduce the toll. 

     Two comprehensive reports -- the surgeon general's report on mental health and a new report by the government's Administration on Aging (AOA) -- point out that older people are more likely to kill themselves than young adults. 

     The most significant factor in elder suicides is unrecognized and untreated mental illness, namely depression. Signs and symptoms of a life-threatening depression often go undetected by the medical community. Studies show that about 20 percent of older Americans who take their own lives have seen a primary care physician that very day -- and 70 percent have seen a doctor within a month of the suicide.

     While some adults have always suffered from a mental illness, many seniors experience these problems for the first time. In a culture that mistakenly believes it's normal for older people to feel depressed, many who could be helped by treatment and supportive services are overlooked.

     "It is estimated that only half of older adults who acknowledge mental health problems receive treatment from any health care provider, and only a fraction of those receive specialty mental health services," concludes the AOA report, "Older Adults and Mental Health: Issues and Opportunities," which was released this week. About 6 percent of those 65 and older -- about 2 million people -- suffer from a depressive illness. Depression often occurs in patients with other disorders, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. And while they often get treated for these conditions, they don't always get therapy for depression.

     Health leaders stress that depression can and should be aggressively treated in the elderly as a first step to lowering the suicide rate. "Risks can be reduced if people get help," says psychiatrist Charles F. Reynolds III of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.


  • Suicide Hot Line: 800-SUICIDE. This national hot line will connect you with local crisis services.

For information about suicide prevention and depression and for referrals for treatment, contact:

  • National Mental Health Association, 800-969-6642 or
  • American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, 301-654-7850, extension 100, or
  • National Institute of Mental Health, 800-421-4211 or
  • American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 888-333-2377 or

In addition, the Administration on Aging's report, "Older Adults and Mental Health: Issues and Opportunities," can be viewed online at

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