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Preventing Suicide in Older People

Statistics, ageism issues, risk factors, resilience factors, QPR approach, safety plan, support networks, conversing with older people

Three sections follow:

1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

2. A suggested Practice Approach

3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!

Background Information

  • Australian men over the age of 85 have the highest rate of suicide.

  • Older people are less likely to see a mental health professional compared to younger people. They will talk to their GP and aged care staff.

  • As a rule older people thinking about suicide are less likely than younger people to tell others about it.

  • Attempts in the older population have a higher likelihood of ending in death than for younger people.

  • When an older person presents with a physical concern there may be an underlying mental health illness (Anglicare, 2022).


Wand, McKay and Pond (2022) suggest ageism is one of the issues that prevents people, including medical professionals, from exploring suicide ideation with older people. Examples of ageism include considering depression as ‘understandable’ or ‘justifiable’ with associated lack of action to intervene and actively manage the situation; and judgements that suicide in an older adult is ‘not such a terrible thing’. Ageism underlies some of the other issues that older people encounter with medical professionals. It should be identified and challenged. Examples include:

  • Ageist attitudes can result in some clinicians failing to engage with older people. As a result clinicians are unlikely to see the emerging signs of suicide ideation.

  • Clinicians may not look to support the unique strengths and needs of older adults and work to effectively counteract ageism.

  • While GPs may be able to engage with older people around mental health interventions, many other professionals have concerns, based on ageist beliefs, about providing mental health interventions to older people. Rejection by health professionals when seeking mental health assistance may contribute to suicidal behaviours and limit further attempts to engage with clinicians.

  • Many clinicians, in part a result of ageist beliefs, hold that psychotherapy is ineffective in older adults.

  • There is a problem with communication across services and transitions in care for older adults who have self-harmed (when compared to younger people).

Risk and resilience factors

The following are potentially modifiable risk factors for suicide (Anglicare, 2022; Erlangsen, et al., 2021; Wand, McKay & Pond, 2022).

  • Depression

  • Other mental illness or symptoms: anxiety (including health anxiety), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia

  • Alcohol misuse

  • Cognitive impairment (early cognitive decline)

  • Losing a sense of agency—the ability to make one’s own decisions

  • Perceiving oneself as a burden on others

  • Loss of independence

  • Living alone, limited social support, loneliness

  • Physical illness (e.g. chronic worsening disability, chronic pain, delirium, malignancy, neurological disorders, liver disease, male genital disorders)

  • Impact of life events (e.g. recent bereavement, recent diagnosis of illness, family discord; fear of placement in a residential aged care facility)

  • Sharing of suicide ideation with family rather than medical professionals.

The following are static risk factors (Page et al., 2021; Wand, McKay & Pond, 2022).

  • Previous suicide attempts or self-harm

  • Childhood adversity, physical and sexual abuse

  • History of limited coping skills in adversity

  • Unemployment/redundancy or transition to retirement (due to being sick, disabled, being a primary carer)

Resilience factors (Anglicare, 2022; Erlangsen, et al., 2021; Wand, McKay & Pond, 2022).

  • Perseverance and determination to move forward

  • Self-efficacy and independence: sense of control

  • Past successful recovery from adversity

  • Positive perspective / optimism

  • Active Spirituality

  • Social support

  • Pro-activity: forward planning based on learning from past adversity

  • Having purpose and a role to play

The QPR approach

The QPR approach (question, persuade, refer) is recommended for speaking with people (older and younger) when one detects changes in mood (or other concerns) that could lead to suicide ideation (Anglicare, 2022).


  • Be bold in asking the suicide question, even though it may feel very uncomfortable

  • Asking someone if they’re thinking about suicide will not ‘plant the idea in their mind’

  • If they are suicidal, ask if they have a plan

  • The person may be ashamed or want to avoid the stigma. It’s important to normalise their thoughts to reduce the feelings of shame.

  • Most suicidal people don’t necessarily want to die; they want the emotional pain to end.


  • The goal of persuasion is simple – we want the person to agree to get some help

  • Active listening is important

  • A helpful question to ask: “Can you tell me some more about that?” Listening often helps relieve some of the emotional burden

  • Instilling hope is a key preventative for suicide

  • Sometimes a listening ear is enough

  • To persuade, it’s important to empathise

  • Language is important

  • A safety plan may be appropriate (see the section below).


  • The best referrals are ‘hand-delivered’, where you can take the person to the referred help yourself.

  • Make sure that you follow-up, don’t ‘refer and dump’.

  • Hospital may not be the best solution for some.

  • Have referral information close at hand for when you need it (see the section below ‘Safety Plan’).

  • Sometimes, all someone needs is a listening ear, and you can provide that for them.

Safety Plan

Beyond Blue (2022) have an online safety plan that can be completed with the person. The following sections are completed and then the finished plan can be printed and/or emailed to the person, a health professional or a trusted supporter.

  • My warning signs

  • Make my space safe

  • My reasons to live

  • Things I can do by myself

  • People and places I can connect with

  • People I can talk or yarn to

  • Professional support

Where to refer (in Australia)
  • General practitioner

  • Specialist practitioner (

  • Mental Health Line (1800 011 511)

  • Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467): A professional, national, 24/7 counselling service for anyone affected by suicide, i.e. people feeling suicidal, people concerned about someone at risk of suicide, people who have lost someone to suicide, for professionals supporting people at risk of suicide. This service offers both immediate support and ongoing support.

  • For men: Mensline Australia (1300 78 99 78;

  • In a crisis: Lifeline (13 11 14); Lifeline for First Nations People (13YARN, 13 92 76,

  • Beyond Blue (1300 224 636,

Practice Approach – Conversing with Older People

Older people are often reluctant to talk because of a range of fears or past experiences. They can feel ashamed, uncomfortable about expressing feelings, fearful of being treated differently, and/or worried about the consequences of sharing worries or problems. Therefore it is important to talk to an older person if worried about them. The following approach can help (Beyond Blue, 2018).

Prepare when and what to say.

  • Choose a relaxed environment (e.g. on a walk) when the person is not tired or distracted

  • Provide examples of how the person has changed

Try to understand things from the person’s perspective.

  • Ask questions to fully understand the situation.

  • Value the person’s wisdom and experience.

  • Be patient and respect privacy.

  • Let the person know he or she is not alone.

  • Check the person is safe: have they had suicidal thoughts?

    • The QPR approach outlined in the Background Material section above is an appropriate approach to adopt if suicide ideation arises.

    • If plans to end one’s life have been made, act immediately: call 000, contact mental health crisis service or go with the person to the emergency department of the local hospital.

    • If having suicidal thoughts, encourage the person to get support. Provide options.

Be supportive and ask how to provide help; balance helping with supporting the person’s independence.

  • Help the person understand what support is available.

  • Encourage professional help if appropriate

  • Don’t impose ideas; listen to and support the older person in addressing the issues in a manner comfortable to her or him.

  • Make a plan together; this could involve a ‘formal’ safety plan – see ‘safety plan’ in the Background Material above.

When they don’t want to talk and don’t want help

  • Respect the person’s right not to seek help.

  • Keep in touch with the person; maintain the relationship.

  • Reassure the person that a lot of people face challenges, and they are not alone; help is available. Provide some written information.

Supporting Material / References

(available on request)

Anglicare. (2022). Suicide Prevention for Seniors. Retrieved from

Beyond Blue. (2022). Create your Beyond Now safety plan. Retrieved from

Beyond Blue. (2018). Having the conversation with older people about anxiety and depression. Retrieved from

Erlangsen, A., Banks, E., Joshy, G., Calear, A. L., Welsh, J., Batterham, P. j., & Salvador-Carulla, L. (2021). Measures of mental, physical, and social wellbeing and their association with death by suicide and self-harm in a cohort of 266,324 persons aged 45 years and over. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 56, 295-303. A summary is available at

Page, A., Sperandei, S., Spittal, M.J., Milner, A., & Pirkis, J. (2021). The impact of transitions from employment to retirement on suicidal behaviour among older aged Australians. Social Psychiatry and psychiatric Epidemiology, 56, 759-77. (2021). A summary is available at

Suicide Call Back Service. (2022). Free telephone counselling. Retrieved from

Wand, A., McKay, R., & Pond, D. (2022). Towards Zero Suicide: Need and opportunities to improve implementation of clinical elements for older adults. Australasian Psychiatry, 30(3), 290-293. doi: 10.1177/10398562211054034


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