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Agencies work to reverse increase in Inland Northwest suicide rates

“Sometimes they don’t think about those they leave behind,” said Berta Bjurstrom, of Post Falls, after a luncheon at the Post Falls Senior Center. The discussion was about suicide rates among seniors, who have the highest suicide rates in the nation and in North Idaho and Spokane County. (Kathy Plonka)
“Sometimes they don’t think about those they leave behind,” said Berta Bjurstrom, of Post Falls, after a luncheon at the Post Falls Senior Center. The discussion was about suicide rates among seniors, who have the highest suicide rates in the nation and in North Idaho and Spokane County. (Kathy Plonka)

A regular face at the Post Falls Senior Center was absent for the recent Wednesday lunch when a policewoman spoke about protecting local seniors, briefly touching on the high rates of elderly suicide.

Bridget Eismann didn’t go into detail or even read the list of suicide warning signs – talking about wanting to kill oneself, buying a gun, sleeping too little, acting withdrawn. The group of seniors was quiet, eating their stuffed chicken. Nobody asked questions.

Likely they were remembering their friend who recently bought a gun and shot himself in his Post Falls home. The week before his death, the 90-year-old sat with his “harem of women” friends at the Wednesday lunch and bragged about buying a gun and his plans to end his life. The friends had heard it before. So had his family, for years. This time the man was serious.

“We just had a loss and a lot of them are really struggling,” said Eismann, the advocate for the Post Falls Police Department’s Victims Services Unit that works with crime victims and cases such as domestic violence, elder abuse and sex crimes. “With all that still fresh I just wanted to touch on it but didn’t go into a lot of detail.”

But Eismann and Alison McArthur, the center’s executive director, wanted people to know that there is help available and provide the seniors with a packet including a list of suicide warning signs and the national suicide prevention lifeline, (800) 273-TALK. They moved the annual talk to the February agenda in an effort to help the seniors who just experienced a tragedy.

“It hit some of our seniors really hard,” McArthur said. “It wasn’t just a joke.”

The Post Falls Police Department has already seen an increase in suicide attempts this year, just two months into 2014. That’s not good news for the elderly, who have the highest suicide rates in the nation and locally, both in North Idaho and Spokane County.

Older adults have a 50 percent higher risk for suicide than young people or the nation as a whole, according to the Spokane Regional Health District. White men older than 80 are six times more likely to commit suicide than any other demographic group. Among the highest rates are white men age 85 and older, the district reports.

The Post Falls Senior Center member who shot himself fits the numbers. It’s suspected he was depressed and frustrated with the challenges of aging. One-fourth of suicides are attributed to untreated or misdiagnosed depression.

The family of the man said nobody should feel guilty, especially his lunchmates. Everyone had tried to help. The family had just found in-home help for him.

“He said he was tired of it all and just wanted to be with his wife,” said Berta Bjurstrom, who sat near him at the lunches.

She added that suicide is so difficult on the remaining family members. “You just wonder what is going through their mind.”

The man had bought guns before, always legally. They say the decorated World War II veteran still had nightmares about the war, waking up in sweats or unable to find sleep. They suggested that even after 70 years he should contact the veterans hospital for help with post-traumatic stress disorder. He missed his wife who died nearly 10 years ago. He fell and hurt the ligaments in his knee, likely dampening his golf game this spring. He was depressed. Lonely. Life just became too overwhelming, the family said.

The suicide rate for baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, is increasing too. Even though suicide is usually associated with teenagers and young adults, midlife suicides are on the rise, reversing a longtime demographic trend, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The rate of suicide completion in Idaho was 17.9 per 100,000 persons in 2011, the most recent numbers provided by Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho.

For elderly males, age 85 and older, the rate was 74.6 suicides per 100,000 from 2007 to 2011. For men age 75-84, the suicide rate was 51.7 per 100,000. The rate was 33.6 for men age 65-74; 42.2 for ages 55-64.

Idaho consistently has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. In 2010, Idaho had the sixth highest suicide rate, 49 percent higher than the national average.

In 2011, suicide rates in Spokane County decreased to 13.5 suicides for every 100,000 of all ages statewide from 14.2 suicides per 100,000 persons. Yet it was the eighth leading cause of death in Spokane County, totaling 64 suicides.

For seniors age 65 and over in Spokane County, the rate per 100,000 was 14.4 suicides. For the midlife group, age 45-64, the rate was 18.7 suicides per 100,000, according to the Spokane Regional Health District.

Suicide prevention advocates say the true rate is probably higher because it doesn’t count “passive” suicides, where people stop taking their medications or eating and drinking. Eismann said sometimes people think the elderly die of natural causes not realizing they purposely mixed up or overdosed on their prescription medications.

It’s difficult to know why elderly suicide rates are so high because there are so many factors, Eismann said.

The common culprits are substance abuse, depression or other mental health issues, financial problems, deceased spouses and traumatic events.

Prevention advocates remind seniors that depression is not a normal part of aging. Clinical depression can be treated successfully in at least 80 percent of all cases, according to the health district pamphlet on elder depression.

So what should you do when someone you know threatens suicide? Talk to them more and get specifics, Eismann said. Ask if they have a plan and how they would take their life. Don’t leave them alone and call for help whether it’s the police department, hospital or the crisis hotline.

“It’s easier to be safe than sorry,” Eismann said. “We’d rather go out there and have them say they were just kidding, a bad joke.”

She said sometimes people just need to talk.

The department has a strong, and somewhat rare, outreach program. For two years, the department has sent a chaplain to visit with every person who makes a reported suicide attempt.

“I think it’s been really successful,” Eismann said. “People say, ‘I don’t think I want to die. Can I just talk with someone?’ ”

Officer Curtis Exley also attends the senior center lunch every Wednesday, so people know a friendly face in the department and can ask for help or resources. The department has done this for years. Besides suicide, the center and police department are also concerned about elder abuse, financial scams and any other problems facing this vulnerable population.

“Please call us,” Eismann told the group of about 100 seniors at the lunch. “We want to help you guys.”

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