Depression, Suicide & The Holiday Season

For most of us, the holiday season is a time filled with joy, family and fun. For many seniors, the holidays are not just a time of celebration and joy, but instead, they also serve as reminders of how lonely he or she may be, friends or loved ones who have passed, and perhaps their inability to participate in family gatherings and holiday events. For some, the holidays are looked at as hurdles to overcome.

Depression affects more than 6.5 million of the 35 million Americans aged 65 or older. Depression in older persons is closely associated with dependency and disability. Some symptoms of depression include:

  • Memory problems
  • Confusion
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Vague complaints of pain
  • Inability to sleep
  • Irritability
  • Delusions (fixed false beliefs)
  • Hallucinations

In addition to depression, suicide risk is also high among older adults. More than 5,000 older adults die from suicide every year. Older adults are also much more likely to die from their attempts at suicide. For young people, for every 100 to 200 suicide attempts, there will be 1 death. For older adults, there will be 1 death for every 4 attempts at suicide (American Association of Suicidology, 2009).

It is important to be familiar with the warning signs that someone you know may be contemplating suicide. Some of these include:

  • Withdrawing from family, friends, or others
  • Sleeping all the time or an inability to sleep
  • Acting reckless
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Hopelessness or feeling trapped
  • No sense of purpose in life
  • Appearing to feel anxious or agitated
  • Rage, uncontrolled anger
  • Dramatic changes in mood
    • (2011 SAMHSA Promotion Emotional Health and Preventing Suicide: A Toolkit for Senior Living Communities)

If you notice these signs in a loved one, or someone you know, they may be struggling with depression and/or suicidal thoughts. Some warning signs that may indicate a more immediate risk that someone may harm themselves include:

  • Threatening or talking about wanting to kill or hurt themselves
  • Looking for ways to kill or hurt themselves
  • Talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide when it is not normal behavior for that person

Whatever your role is in an older adults life (a caregiver, family member or even casual acquaintance), make it your responsibility to get involved. It is easy to get caught up in the excitement and happiness of the holiday season. Try to remember, everyone has a different story, a different struggle, and their holiday may look a lot different than yours. Ask the person how they are feeling. Ask them if they have any holiday stories they would like to share with you. Help create some new, positive traditions or memories they will treasure. You may be able to make a positive difference in a person’s holiday season, particularly if they are suffering from depression.

It is important to alert family members or possibly 911 immediately if you notice warning signs of immediate risk. You may also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

For more information or professional mental health assistance, contact:
Sara Gilloth, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

*Information submitted by: Sara Gilloth, Psy.D.

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