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July 2017

High Prevalence of Suicide in Older Adults a Concern in Singapore

429 suicides were reported in 2016, an increase of 20 from 2015. This saw the second highest suicide deaths recorded in Singapore for the past 10 years, with the highest tipping at 467 in 2012.

Suicide death in young adults aged 20 to 29 remains a significant concern. 77 of them died by suicide in 2016. This works out to more than 6 per month, the highest number of deaths among all other age groups. A worrying trend in Singapore is the high prevalence of suicide mortality among the youths for the past 5 years. SOS continued to observe stressors cited by youths such as stress with studies or work, unemployment, financial worries, family life, and struggles with social interactions and feelings of loneliness. Ms Christine Wong, Executive Director of Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) commented that it is important to allow young people to have a safe space to verbalise what they are going through and the necessary support in place to help them work through their troubles.

Another stark observation is the older adults aged 50 and above which saw a jump of 19% in suicide deaths, from 166 in 2015 to 197 in 2016. This group of people are a worry for risk of suicide in Singapore as it continues to tip at high figures at 46 percent of total suicide deaths recorded in 2016.

Ms Wong expressed her concern for older adults aged 50 and above, “They sometimes fall into the so-called ‘sandwich generation’, who are caring for both children and ageing parents at the same time. The demands can overwhelm even when one is prepared for them. Singapore is feeling the impact on ageing population at a rapid pace. It is important to remember however, that while older adults commonly experience isolation and depression, it is not a normal part of the ageing process and, is a serious risk factor for suicide.”

The number of calls received on the SOS 24-hour hotline in which clients disclosed their age in the 50 and above group was 11,584. The number sits on a steady percentage of around 30 to 33 of total calls received for the past 5 years. Common stressors presented by this group of callers were employment issues, financial worries, family relationships, mental health and physical and psychological impairment, and chronic health problems.

Commenting on the stressors, Ms Wong explained this is especially so for males during the transition of life when they face retrenchment, financial issues, retirement and the impact on their family relationships. Males in their 50s experience significant life changes with a convergence of several factors that makes them especially vulnerable. For instance, females tend to be more likely to be receptive in seeking help than males. And this difference in help-seeking behavior may be one reason why more males died by suicide than females. For some, the later years include struggles commonly faced by both genders, including the loss of family and friends leading to isolation and less social support, debilitating physical health problems and a loss of independence. The fear of becoming dependent on, or a burden to, their children can be overwhelming. It was found that functional disability, as well as a number of specific physical illnesses, was shown to be associated with suicidal behaviour in older adults. Suicide ideation has many causes. Most often, they are the result of feeling overwhelmed by life situations and thus experiencing a sort of tunnel vision and believing suicide is the only way out.

In this respect, this group of people often fall through the cracks as it is a challenge in getting older adults, or even men to reach out to others for interpersonal support, or for professional help such as counselling or psychotherapy. More attention needs to be channelled into recognising suicide warning signs and learning the resources available to support those who may be struggling silently. Effective steps should be taken in addressing the socio-economic problems common among older adults.

Our rapidly increasing ageing population provides an imperative to change. A culture of help-seeking and an inclusive social support network among co-workers, friends and loved ones can only be fostered when there is deeper understanding of awareness and sensitivity to the fundamental needs of those at risk of suicide.

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