by Kirsty Stein
NOT enough is being done to stem continuing high rates of suicide among older men.
Acknowledging that men over 85 have by far the highest rate of suicide of any group, NSW Mental Health Commissioner John Feneley told a recent Council on the Ageing NSW forum he believed every suicide was preventable.
However, men over 85 continue to commit suicide at a rate of 37.6 per 100,000, compared with 28.1 per 100,000 in the 80-85 age group.
“There can be no allowance for the fact that we turn our backs on a particular age group,” Mr Feneley said.
He said while NSW had launched a whole-of-life plan for mental health last year, the system remained crisis-focused.
“Prevention and early intervention is as relevant to a person in their 80s as to someone in their 20s,” he said.
“We know the outcome for people who become isolated is very dire.
“It’s completely unacceptable that there should be such a strong correlation between ageing and suicide.
“There’s a real sense of urgency: we need to embrace the value of that part of our population and do everything we can to empower them to participate in our community.”
Mental Health Minister Pru Goward said policies needed to challenge the combined stigma of mental illness and ageing to develop preventive strategies.
Too often, she said, older people were not given opportunities to genuinely participate in their community because of discrimination and misguided attempts to protect them.
Providing older men with strong social supports and a continuing role was essential.
“Our older people have lived long lives, have rich experience and still have so much to give,” Ms Goward said.
“We must not try to protect them: we must encourage and value their continuing contribution.
“A key priority must be prevention – a regular cycle of activities providing a sense of purpose and the need to be respected.”
Ms Goward said the suicide of older men should be seen as a social issue. “We need integrated policies, not just mental health or housing.”
NSW Institute of Psychiatry executive director Rod Mackay said ambivalence and a “fierce ageism” was letting older men down.
He said even experts from major mental health organisations had gone on the record with comments suggesting it was not tragic that older men were committing suicide, and that the desire to die was a natural part of ageing.
“We need to confront the myth that late life is a period of demoralisation,” Dr Mackay said.
“Too often, people believe depression is normal in old age and the opportunity to prevent tragedy is missed.
“Research shows for a majority of older people, late life is the stage of greatest contentment.”
Dr Mackay said in the United Kingdom suicide rates among older people had fallen significantly over the past 20 years.
But in Australia older people were constantly exposed to attitudes suggesting they would be a burden as they became more physically frail. In reality, three in four older people would not get dementia, and treatment of depression remained effective at any age.
Despite the high and unambiguous suicide statistics, Dr Mackay said NSW was the only state with a plan for the mental health care of older people.
National mental health policy now recognised older people as a special-needs group but did not include an action plan; and Medicare spending on mental health services for over-85s was almost non-existent.
“We need to treat older people the same way we treat everyone else with a mental illness,” Dr Mackay said.
“We need to provide access to care that is effective and appropriate and expecting success.”
The Mental Health Commission is working with COTA NSW on a report on living well in later life, to be released later this year.
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