A new state report tracking suicides shows older adults who took their own lives showed signs of depression more often than younger adults who did the same.
However, those older adults — age 65 and older — were less likely to have sought mental health treatment previously.
The recently released Iowa Department of Public Health report examined the state’s 460 suicides in 2017 and the factors that contributed to them.
Pat McGovern, suicide prevention director for IDPH, said this was the first report compiled as part of the Iowa Violent Death Reporting System. Report authors looked extensively at police reports related to the deaths to find underlying factors.
“Suicide is a very complex problem,” McGovern said. “Identifying the factors that are causing these tragedies can help inform our prevention work.”
The report states that problems with intimate partners were the leading contributing factors found in adults age 25 to 44 who died by suicide in 2017. However, as victims aged, physical health problems became more prevalent factors.
The report states that physical health problems were “contributing circumstances” in 68% of suicides by people at least 65 years old. In comparison, physical health problems were linked to 15% of suicides by those ages 25 to 44 and 5% of those younger than 25.
“Twenty-year-olds aren’t as likely to be faced with issues like cancer,” McGovern said. “That is certainly something that affects us harder and harder as we get older.”
Meanwhile, “intimate partner problems” were most often a contributing factor for the 25-44 population, followed by the younger-than-25 group. McGovern said that likely is connected with an inability to cope with severed or damaged relationships.
“(Young people are) not as well equipped to handle those situations,” he said. “Our support networks are not as solid.”
Heather Heins, director of subacute and crisis stabilization at Hillcrest Family Services in Dubuque, said young adults tend to be more exposed to communication technologies that can create social issues.
“Communication is generally more electronic among young people,” Heins said. “Things can be misconstrued, and there is online bullying.”
Heins said her organization generally works to help younger people develop community support systems, which can help them through relationship problems.
However, helping older Iowa residents remains a struggle.
The reports states that even though signs of depression are most visible among older residents, they are the least likely demographic to seek some sort of mental health treatment.
McGovern said that disconnect often can be attributed to the older generation’s adherence to independence and the lingering stigma attached to mental health treatment.
“It’s a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of generation,” McGovern said. “It’s one thing to go to the doctor, but it’s another thing to go because you are feeling depressed.”
Sue Whitty, president of Mental Health America of Dubuque County, said older adults often are an underaddressed population that faces chronic health issues, a lack of access to family and friends and a more isolated lifestyle that can add to mental strain.
“They don’t have as many supports,” Whitty said. “The older adult population isn’t as open to talking about those things. They are more socially isolated.”
Whitty said those issues generally can be addressed through programs that work to socialize older adults, along with services that check up on the mental well-being of residents. But access to those programs can be difficult.
She pointed to the Iowa Area Agency on Aging, which provides mental health services for older adults but has been hit with budget cuts in the past few years.
Officials with the Northeast Iowa Area Agency on Aging did not return phone messages seeking comment for this story.
Angela Hoffman, nurse manager with UnityPoint Health-Finley Hospital’s senior behavioral health inpatient unit, said it can be challenging to get older adults to open up about topics such as suicidal thoughts.
However, progress has been made toward addressing a generation that generally avoids those discussions simply by being direct when asking about suicidal thoughts.
“The older generation, it’s harder to pull that out,” Hoffman said. “We find that being more direct, asking them outright, that is the go-to way.”
Adults 65 years old and older accounted for 18% of all suicides reported in Iowa in 2017. About 17% of suicides were people younger than 25, while middle-aged (45 to 64 years old) and young adults (25 to 44 years old) each accounted for 32% of the total number of suicides in the state.
McGovern said more data likely related to suicides in Iowa will be collected and published in the coming years. He hopes the reports can help mental health care providers serve those who might be at risk.
“We’re getting better with suicide prevention,” McGovern said. “This is a resource we are trying to get out to people who can affect change.”