Depression and Suicide in Older Adults

Nearly 2 million older Americans have some type of depression. Sadly, some of them even take their own lives. Yet depression among older adults is often ignored. Learn the warning signs. You may help spare a loved one needless pain. You may also save a life.

Elderly couple, woman holding her head with hand and man sitting with his hand on her shoulder consoling her.

What is depression?

Depression is a serious illness that affects the way you think and feel. It is not a normal part of aging, nor is it a sign of weakness, a character flaw, or something you can snap out of. Most people with depression need treatment to get better. The most common symptom is a feeling of deep sadness. People who are depressed also may seem tired and listless. And nothing seems to give them pleasure. It’s normal to grieve or be sad sometimes. But sadness lessens or passes with time. Depression rarely goes away or improves on its own. Other symptoms of depression are:

  • Sleeping more or less than normal

  • Eating more or less than normal

  • Having headaches, stomachaches, or other pains that don’t go away

  • Feeling nervous, “empty,” or worthless

  • Crying a great deal

  • Thinking or talking about suicide or death

  • Feeling confused or forgetful

What causes it?

The causes of depression aren’t fully known. But, it is thought to result from a complex interaction of biochemistry, genetics, environmental factors, and personality. Certain chemicals in the brain play a role. Depression does run in families. And life stresses can also trigger depression in some people. Older adults often face many stressors, such as death of friends or a spouse, health problems, and financial concerns.

How you can help

Often, depressed people may not want to ask for help. When they do, they may be ignored. Or, they may receive the wrong treatment. You can help by showing parents and older friends love and support. If they seem depressed, help them find the right treatment. Talk to your doctor. Or contact a local mental health center, social service agency, or hospital. With modern treatment, no one has to suffer from depression.

If your older friend or family member agrees, you can be an advocate for him or her in the healthcare setting. Many times, older adults have other chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, or cancer that can cause symptoms of depression. Medicine side effects can also contribute to certain behaviors and feelings. It is important that the older adult's healthcare provider listens and sorts out the causes of any symptoms of depression and makes referrals to mental health specialists when needed. Untreated depression can result in misdiagnosis, including brain disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer's. If the health professional does not take the issue of depression seriously, ask your family member or friend to consider finding another provider.

Resources

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

    866-662-HELP (4357)

    https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov

  • National Institute of Mental Health

    866-615-6464

    www.nimh.nih.gov

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness

    800-950-6264

    www.nami.org

  • Mental Health America

    800-969-6642

    www.nmha.org

  • National Suicide Hotline

    800-784-2433 (800-SUICIDE)

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

    800-273-8255 (800-273-TALK)