Don’t Let Go: Suicide Prevention and The Elderly

Don't Let Go: Suicide Prevention and the Elderly - BOOM

Of the total number of deaths by suicide in 2014 (42,773), almost 18% or 7,693 people were 65 years of age and older. When I ask people in the community, which population of people have the highest rates of suicide, the answer is always the same:  Young people. (In 2014, the rate of suicide for people <25 was 11,6 per 100,000 population). While young people’s deaths by suicide are tragic, older people have higher rates of suicide. Does this surprise you? The ratio of suicide attempts to completed acts of suicide for young people, for example, are 100-200 attempts for one completed death by suicide. For older people, however, the ratio of suicide attempts to completed deaths by suicide is 4:1. What this means is that older people are less ambivalent about their decision to die by suicide. Would older people’s ambivalence towards death by suicide change if they had someone to talk with who would listen compassionately? If an older adult who was thinking about suicide could connect with someone who cared, would this make a difference? I believe it could. That’s why the Friendship Line was created in 1973. Through the Friendship Line older people who may be feeling lonely, depressed, isolated, alone, bereaved, sad, and/or suicidal can connect with a trained volunteer or staff member who truly wants to hear your story.

I had the good fortune to be part of a small number of people who created the Friendship Line. Because of my interest in the field of aging, I was aware that older people were more likely to respond to an invitation to have a conversation about a difficult topic than they would to a confrontation. The difference between “Hello, Suicide Prevention” and “Hello, Friendship Line, may I help you?” is vast. When we responded to a call with the latter response, the older caller began to speak and share their story. In 1973, if we had 50 contacts with older adults, we thought we were doing a good job with our outreach. In June 2016, we had approximately 8,000 contacts with older adults and younger disabled individuals. I knew we were on to a better way in which to connect with older people.

Calls to the Friendship Line originate from people who live in the 58 counties in California, including Solano County, as well as throughout the United States. In addition to receiving incoming calls from older adults, younger disabled adults, family and professional caregivers, we make emotional outreach calls to older people who may need additional support. If you are living alone or know someone who is isolated, please call 415.750.411 and make a referral. No one in this day and age should be slipping into isolation. We care and are willing to reach out to you and offer emotional support.

As an accredited crisis intervention service, we are unique in that we are both a hotline and a warm-line. What this means is that you don’t have to be in a suicidal crisis to contact us. For example, a sixty-two year-old man called recently. He had never before used the Friendship Line. After a few minutes of hesitation, he said “Can I tell you that I feel really alone? I just don’t want to call anyone I know. I feel embarrassed and ashamed. My adult son and I got into an argument. It was bad. He said hurtful things; I did too. I don’t know what to do. Can you help me?”

Yes. We did help him by actively listening as he shared his story with us. This story and thousands of others that we have heard over the 43 years that Friendship Line has been in operation matters to us. Our stories reveal something about us, our lives, our concerns. We at the Friendship Line care. Don’t let go. There is always hope. If you need someone with whom to speak, don’t hesitate to call 800.971.0016. You matter!   

By Patrick Arbore, Ed.D., Founder & Director, Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention & Grief Related Services, Institute on Aging, San Francisco, CA
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Out of the Darkness Community Walk
held at the Suisun Waterfront
October 15, 2016

Register at:

Why We Walk
The core of the Out of the Darkness Walks, the Community Walks created a movement. Held in hundreds of cities across the country, they give people the courage to open up about their own struggle or loss, and the platform to change our culture’s approach to mental health.

The Out of the Darkness Walks are proof that when people work together they can make big changes in the world. They are AFSP’s largest fundraiser – they produce millions for suicide prevention programs, unite those who have been affected by suicide, and create communities that are smart about mental health.