How to Spot the Early Warning Signs of Suicide in Seniors

Suicide may arguably be one of the few remaining taboos in today's society. While many of us know someone who has decided to take their own life, few of us are willing to talk about it. However, according to the Association of Suicidology (AAS), 30,000 Americans of all ages commit suicide each year. Last year suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and more people died in the U.S. by suicide than from HIV or homicide combined. Did you know that the suicide rate is one of the highest among those who are 85 years and older, and it has been rising since 2008? (source) These are sobering figures but what is suicidal behavior and what causes it? How can you spot suicidal warning signs and what can you do to help?

What is Suicidal Behavior?

Suicidal behavior includes any suicidal thoughts, threats, or attempts. These behaviors are reactions to feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, and hopelessness. While it may be difficult to understand, most people who attempt to take their own lives do not want to die. They want relief from their overwhelming pain. A person with suicidal thoughts may not seek help because they feel they cannot be helped.

Risk Factors for Suicide

Sometimes people experience a traumatic event in their lives, like the loss of a loved one, or the struggles of addiction, which may cause risk factors for suicide. These type of events are referred to as trauma and older adults can experience these more than other age groups. Seniors can also become depressed about aging or dealing with illness or death, especially as they grapple with the passing of friends and relatives through the years. Sometimes individuals have no way of dealing with this trauma. Many people ignore the pain of depression and over time the symptoms of depression can become unbearable and can cause some people to experience thoughts of suicide. This can become a sudden overwhelming urge that is both scary and uncontrollable. Some individuals are embarrassed or afraid to ask for help.

The Warning Signs of Suicide

Some of the warning signs of suicide are:

  • Drastic changes in behavior, including eating and sleeping habits
  • Withdrawing from friends and previously enjoyable activities like hobbies, sports, and sex
  • Social isolation
  • Feelings of loss of sense of purpose and independence
  • Preparing for death by making a will or other final arrangements, including giving away prized possessions
  • Preoccupation with death and dying
  • Losing interest in personal appearance
  • Alcohol or medication abuse
  • Daring and risky behavior

It is crucial that friends and family of older adults notice these warning signs and take appropriate action. Suicidal thoughts start mostly with passive thoughts and saying things like “ I would be better off dead.” While this kind of language is not uncommon among older people, it is a clear sign of distress and should be addressed promptly. If it does not happen frequently, it may merely indicate that the person is lonely and needs more attention.

In contrast, when a person is thinking about actually taking their own life, it is considered active suicidal thoughts and it requires immediate medical assessment and help of a mental health professional. If you suspect that your loved one is seriously considering suicide, you should get in touch with National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-8255. They provide 24/7 free assistance and confidential support for those who struggle with this issue. The ultimate goal should be to prevent the triggers of suicidal thoughts, by getting professional therapy before the thoughts of suicide occur.

Meredith Rogers is a blogger, health writer, and a nurse. She is currently editor-in-chief for, a nursing blog about various nursing issues related to older adults.