Friday, March 2, 2012

Suicide Prevention for Seniors and African Americans

Don Cornelius’s death shocked many of us. The report that his death was a suicide has made it all the more tragic. Best known as the founder of Soul Train, Don was an icon in American music history. Unfortunately, as noted by others commenting on his death, the “Love, Peace, and Soul” he promoted as a public figure may have eluded Don in his personal life, particularly in his later years.

Now we are further shocked by the untimely death of Whitney Houston. Her battle with drug abuse was well known, though the cause of her death has not yet been determined. In our sensational, media-driven culture, the very personal details of celebrities’ mental, emotional, and family struggles are often on display for public entertainment, sympathy, judgment, and criticism. In recent years, with the tragic losses of Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger, and others, the dangers of illegal and prescription drug abuse have been given an increasing spotlight in the media. 

Don Cornelius’s death, however, highlights two mental health issues that are significantly under-discussed in the public: suicide in African Americans and in seniors.

Depression is under-diagnosed in older adults. It often co-occurs with medical illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer, and can be associated with the social difficulties and financial strain many older adults experience. Because of this, we tend to accept depression as a natural consequence of aging, but this is not so. When depression is present, it not only diminishes a person’s quality of life but also increases his / her risk of death by delaying or worsening recovery from the medical illness or by suicide. Depression is also under-recognized and under-treated among African Americans and other minorities. 

I recently spoke at a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) program called "Sharing Hope: Understanding Mental Health" in Augusta, GA. “Sharing Hope” is an educational program designed to raise awareness of mental health issues in African American church congregations. One woman there told us that her brother had died from suicide not long ago. She explained that he had been troubled for some time and had made threats before but not acted on them. She asked: Were there signs she and her family missed? Was there some way they could have prevented it? She expressed feelings of guilt and shared that she and her family blamed themselves for not having done more, yet at the same time, they didn’t know what more they could have done. 

My heart goes out to her and to anyone who has been affected by the suicide of a loved one. Feelings of guilt, self-blame, and shame are common. Perhaps some consolation can be found in the recognition that it’s impossible to fully control the decisions and actions of another adult. There are support groups for survivors of suicide that provide a place to express these complex emotions. Seek support from your faith if that is relevant to you, and tune out those who would make negative remarks about your loved one's fate after death, as none of us have the final say in that matter. 

The best suicide prevention is early recognition and treatment of depression. Depression may be masked by factors such as medical illness, dementia, personality style, and other mental illnesses, so understand the symptoms. 

If you are concerned about a loved one, please follow these suggestions:
1)  Do not be afraid to ask if they are considering suicide--you will not plant the thought in their mind by asking.
2)   Stage an intervention if necessary, where you can express your concerns and encourage them to get treatment.
3)  Take any and all threats or gestures seriously--seek help from their doctor immediately or call 911.

We should celebrate the achievements of Whitney Houston, Don Cornelius, and the other amazing talents we’ve recently lost; our lives are richer for their contributions. I hope that by raising awareness of these critical mental health issues, their untimely deaths will cause others to seek help and to heal.