Suicide—The Hidden Epidemic
JOHN AND MARY* are in their late 50’s and live in the rural United States in a small house. John is slowly dying of emphysema and congestive heart failure. Mary simply cannot imagine life without John, and she cannot stand the pain of seeing him fade away, one gasping breath at a time. Mary has health problems of her own and has suffered for years from depression. John has been alarmed lately because Mary has been talking about suicide. Her thinking is increasingly confused because of the depression and all the medication she takes. She says that she cannot bear the thought of being alone.
The house is full of medicine—heart pills, antidepressants, tranquilizers. In the early hours one morning, Mary goes into the kitchen and just starts taking pills. She doesn’t stop until John finds her and takes the pills from her. He calls the rescue squad as she slips into a coma. He prays it is not too late.
What the Statistics Reveal
Much has been written in recent years about increasing numbers of suicides among the young—and rightly so, for what greater tragedy is there than the needless death of a young person, full of life and promise? Yet, overlooked in the headlines is the fact that the suicide rate in most countries rises steadily with age. This is true whether the overall suicide rate in a given country is high or low, as the box on the preceding page shows. A glance at those statistics also reveals the global nature of this hidden epidemic.
In 1996 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported that the number of suicides among Americans aged 65 and older had jumped by 36 percent since 1980. Some of this increase was due to the greater numbers of elderly Americans—but not all of it. In 1996 the actual rate of suicide among those over 65 also went up, by 9 percent, for the first time in 40 years. Of injury-related deaths, only falls and motor-vehicle crashes killed more elderly Americans. Actually, even these alarming figures may be too low. “Suicide is suspected of being grossly understated in the statistics based on cause-of-death certification,” observes A Handbook for the Study of Suicide. The book adds that some estimate the actual figures to be twice as high as the reported statistics.
The result? The United States, like many other countries, is suffering from the hidden global epidemic of senior-citizen suicide. Dr. Herbert Hendin, an expert on the subject, notes: “Despite the fact that the suicide rate in the United States rises consistently and markedly with age, suicide among older people has received little public attention.” Why is that? He suggests that part of the problem is that since the suicide rate for older people has always been high, “it has not created the sudden alarm accompanying the dramatic increase in youthful suicide.”
A Terrible Efficiency
These statistics, although shocking, are just cold numbers. They cannot convey the loneliness of life without a cherished mate, the frustration of lost independence, the despair of a lingering disease, the emptiness of chronic depression, the hopelessness of a fatal illness. The sad truth is that while young people may attempt suicide as a reckless reaction to temporary problems, older people are usually faced with problems that seem to be permanent and unsolvable. As a result, they often approach suicide more determinedly than the young and carry it out with a terrible efficiency.
“Not only is suicide significantly more prevalent among older persons, but the suicidal act itself reflects important differences between old and young,” notes Dr. Hendin, in his book Suicide in America. “In particular, the ratio of attempted to actual suicides shifts quite markedly among older persons. Among the population as a whole, the ratio of attempted suicides to actual suicides has been estimated to be 10 to 1; among the young (15-24), it has been estimated to be 100 to 1; and among those over 55, it has been estimated to be 1 to 1.”
What sobering statistics! How depressing to grow old, lose physical strength, and suffer pain and sickness! Little wonder so many commit suicide. Yet, there is powerful reason to treasure life—even under very difficult circumstances. Consider what happened to Mary, who was mentioned in the introduction.
Names have been changed.
[Chart on page 3]
Suicide Rates per 100,000 Persons, by Age and Sex
Men/Women Ages 15 to 24
23.4/3.7 United States
Men/Women Ages 75 and Up
50.7/5.6 United States