Suicide rate of Michigan senior citizens highest in 30 years

Zaira Magomedova
Capital News Service

Lansing — The suicide rate of Michigan senior citizens 75 and older in 2020 was the highest for this age group since 1991, according to state records.

It was also the highest suicide rate of all age groups in 2020, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The number of all suicide deaths in Michigan slightly decreased last year from 1,471 to 1,432. But the rate is still concerning, said Dr. Debra Pinals, the medical director of Behavioral Health and Forensic Programs for the Department of Health and Human Services.

“Suicide was not in the top 10 causes of death last year. However, the rates are still higher than they were years ago. This is a national trend,” she said.

It is especially troubling among the elderly where deaths went up from 136 in 2019 to 150 in 2020. That increased the rate to more than 20 for every 100,000 people.

The Lancet medical journal recently reported that deaths from all causes were higher across people with mental disorders and learning disabilities during and after the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is no single explanation for the increasing number of deaths by suicide among the elderly, Pinals said. 

“There are many things going on right now, so it can be depression, substance abuse, loss of functioning, pain, medical problems. Any one of those issues can increase strain and distress for an older adult,” she said.  

Access to the means to commit suicide plays a significant role in suicide rates increase, according to the Michigan Suicide Prevention Commission Initial Report, issued this year. More than half of all suicide deaths are the result of firearms. Mental illness and feeling of hopelessness are also named as leading factors.

Loneliness and social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic might be another reason, said Gloria Kovnot, an Ingham County representative on the Tri-County Office on the Aging Advisory Council.

“In my experience, those older adults that were not able to keep in touch virtually had a much harder time during the pandemic. Personally, my husband and I live on my daughter’s property and are very blessed to have family to shop and look in on us, as both of us have some health issues. Those seniors who didn’t have partners had a hard time.”

Older adults were provided help and support during the pandemic, Pinals said.

“Our Aging & Adult Administration is really working hard to try and make an effort. For example, during the height of COVID there was a lot of food delivery, outreach to older adults, trying to help them address issues they may have been facing.”

The Tri-County Office on Aging, the AARP and various volunteer groups, senior centers and other organizations contributed to helping older adults, Kovnot said.

“However, they could only reach out to people that they knew,” she added.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. for all ages. Every day, approximately 130 Americans take their own lives.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, among warning signs of suicide are talking about wanting to die, having great guilt or shame, being a burden to others or feeling hopeless, trapped, extremely sad, more anxious, agitated, or full of rage. Another reason to be concerned is changing behavior. That could include, making a plan or researching ways to die, withdrawing from friends, saying goodbye, giving away important items, or making a will. 

If these warning signs apply to you or someone you know, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. More information is available on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website.