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Suicide more common among older adults

Suicide among older adults is more common than many might think, with North Carolina ranking 31st in the nation when it comes to deaths.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Matt Sammis' mother, a chef, and father, the general manager for a country club, had successful careers, were active in the community and did a lot for others.

So it was a surprise to him, he says, when his father committed suicide in September 2003 at the age of 56 and his mother killed herself four years later at the age of 52.

"We didn't really see too many of the warning signs until afterwards, and I guess you go back and think of everything – what you could have done or should have done," Sammis, 30, said.

In hindsight, he says, there were red flags, such as withdrawing from family and friends.

"I really wish they would have asked for help," Sammis said. "Sometimes, you need to ask for a little bit of help. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem."

Sammis' story isn't uncommon.

"The older population is much higher (than other age groups), as far as the rate of suicide," Larry Bernstein, a licensed therapist who facilitates a Triangle support group called Survivors of Suicide, which has meetings in Raleigh, Wake Forest and Chapel Hill.

With more than 30 deaths per day among people over the age of 55, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in the United States for people between the ages of 55 and 64, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The latest statistics available, from 2009, show an average of 5,808 suicides per year in the 55-64 age group and an average of 5,858 suicides per year for people over age 65.

Although the suicide rate for the elderly has declined over the past 20 years, the American Association of Suicidology, says that adults over the age of 65 have rates of suicide close to 50 percent higher than that of the nation as a whole.

Older adults attempt suicide less often than those in other age groups, but they have a higher completion rate.

One of the leading causes is depression, which is often undiagnosed or untreated, but there are several factors: the recent death of a loved one, poor health, loneliness and major changes in social roles, like retirement.

The AAS ranks North Carolina No. 31 in the nation when it comes to suicides in that age group with more than 1,174 deaths on a yearly basis. More than 8,000 North Carolina residents receive emergency treatment for self-inflicted wounds each year.

"We've got to mobilize people and be able to talk about this important issue of suicide," Bernstein said.

He, himself, is a so-called survivor. His son, Michael, committed suicide 20 years ago.

"Nothing prepared me in my life for this significant loss," Bernstain said.

Helping others, he says, has helped him to heal.

Sammis says the support group has also helped him on his journey to heal. With the group and the support of his wife, he's been able to examine what might have led to his parents' deaths.

He says he wishes they had reached out for help. But Bernstein says the demographic isn't the type to often ask for help.

"If you look at that generation, we've been told to be self-sufficient and deal with our issues. And it's a sign of weakness for many people to ask for help," he said.


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