Oregon Combats High Suicide Rates Among Elderly

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Nationwide, the elderly have the highest suicide rate of any age group, and in Oregon, the elderly suicide rate is among the highest in the country. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Colin Fogarty looks at the reasons behind the trend and efforts at prevention.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Elderly people are far more likely to commit suicide than people in any other age group. Oregon has one of the highest elderly suicide rates in the nation. And as Colin Fogarty of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, it's also the first state to develop a suicide-prevention program specifically targeting the elderly.

COLIN FOGARTY reporting:

To say that Ginger Pitts of Gresham, Oregon, was devastated by her mother's suicide is an understatement.

Ms. GINGER PITTS: I try to get through each day, but every day, even now, she's on my mind. I think about her. She was my best friend.

FOGARTY: Last Thanksgiving, 75-year-old Virginia Pollock wrapped herself in a comforter and laid down in her garage beneath the back bumper of her car. She inhaled enough carbon monoxide to kill herself. Pitts says she can't understand. Her mother had no serious illness and left no note to explain.

Ms. PITTS: I just wish that I would have been sharp enough or astute enough to see that she was depressed, but she did such a good job covering it up. She was only 75 years old; she still had a good 10, maybe 15 years to go.

FOGARTY: Nationally for every 100,000 people older than 65, 15 to 20 commit suicide every year. Yeates Conwell, a suicide researcher at the University of Rochester, says the profile of a senior citizen most at risk for suicide is a white man who faces mounting health problems. But Conwell says much about the phenomenon remains unknown.

Mr. YEATES CONWELL (University of Rochester): Too often, I think, in society we're looking for an easy answer to say, `Mr. Smith killed himself because of his stroke.' Usually it's some much more complex combination of factors.

FOGARTY: Such as the person's ability to adjust to the difficulties of old age or willingness to seek mental health treatment. In Oregon, as in other rural Western states, the rate of elderly suicides is alarmingly high. In fact, Lisa Millet with the Oregon Department of Human Services says at 125 a year, about as many older Oregonians died by suicide as by car crashes.

Ms. LISA MILLET (Oregon Department of Human Services): And if you think about the resources that go into reducing car crash fatalities, we never talk about reducing suicides.

FOGARTY: So Millet is developing a public health campaign she says other states are bound to follow, as more and more baby boomers enter the elder years. The central focus of the campaign is to get health professionals, social workers and anyone else who works with older people to look closer for the warning signs of suicide.

Ms. MILLET: It's really difficult to sit across from someone and ask them the question, `Are you thinking about killing yourself, or have you thought about killing yourself?'--and then to take a positive, affirmative answer to that question and not display shock and horror but be able to be there for them and be with them and be helpful.

FOGARTY: Oregon faces a unique wrinkle on the issue of elder suicide. It's the only state to allow physician-assisted suicide for mentally competent patients diagnosed with less than six months to live. Critics of the law say Oregon is asking health professionals to work at cross-purposes: to be proactive on elder suicide prevention; at the same time, counseling the terminally ill on their suicide options. But state health officials see the two issues as separate and say the aim of this program is to prevent suicides among people who still have years left to enjoy life. For NPR News, I'm Colin Fogarty in Portland.

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