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DHS news release

May 15, 2006


Contact: Bonnie Widerburg (971) 673-1282
Technical contacts: Mel Kohn, M.D., state epidemiologist (971) 673-0982
Lisa Millet, DHS injury prevention manager (971) 673-1059

DHS releases statewide older adult suicide prevention plan

The Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) today released a comprehensive plan for how the state can confront the problem of older suicide, which kills about 100 older Oregonians every year.

Oregon's suicide rates among people age 65 and older are higher than those of other age groups and have ranked at the top nationally for more than a decade, according to Mel Kohn, M.D., state epidemiologist in DHS.

"This is an important issue that will only get worse as our population ages," said Kohn. "This plan is both a call to action and a roadmap for preventing further deaths."

DHS has received $100,000 from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to help implement the plan. SAMHSA and Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon are supportive of Oregon's plan, which is at the forefront of older suicide prevention, Kohn said.

"Identifying the warning signs of depression and taking action is critical to preventing suicide," Senator Smith said. "Coping with the stress of growing older, deteriorating health and increased levels of pain can overwhelm even the most prepared among us."

The plan describes the characteristics and circumstances most common among suicide victims aged 65 and older, such as:

  • Eighty-six percent were males. The rate for males was nearly nine times higher than that for females.
  • Ninety-nine percent were white.
  • Depression was reported in 50 percent of males and 61 percent of females.
  • Seventy-six percent of males and 72 percent of females were reported to have some physical health problem.
  • Firearms were used in 79 percent of the suicides.

It also notes contributors to the problem, including:

  • Social stigma and misconceptions about suicide and behavioral health care.
  • High prevalence of mood disorders among older adults, particularly those with certain chronic health conditions.
  • Decreasing opportunities for social connection and support with aging.
  • Barriers to care.
  • Lack of resources and political will to build community systems of care for older adults.

"Often suicide is preventable," said Bob Nikkel, M.S.W., DHS mental health and addiction services administrator. "But just as there is no single cause of suicide, there is no single solution. Tackling the problem requires a multi-faceted approach involving our behavioral health system and all of our communities."

State and local senior service organizations were involved in developing the plan, said James Toews, DHS seniors and people with disabilities administrator. "We hope to build on the strong network of senior service providers in communities throughout Oregon as this important work gets underway," he said.

The plan proposes that partnerships be built across disciplines and a range of intervention programs be developed in many settings. It also calls for integrating primary and behavioral health care and bringing suicide prevention activities into existing service delivery systems.

Three specific strategies are outlined, with specific activities in each area to be carried out at both state and local levels:

  1. Improve clinical care and services for older at-risk adults.
  2. Develop and implement evidence-based suicide prevention practices in communities.
  3. Develop and improve information gathering systems, evaluation and research.

Local efforts will have state support, Kohn said. Specifically, DHS will:

  • Work with local partners to coordinate community forums and begin disseminating the plan.
  • Establish an e-mail listserv for interested parties that will include postings of events, new research and training information.
  • Form a group of state agencies and partners to foster collaboration and provide technical assistance, training and information to communities. The group will develop financial support proposals and assist communities with grant-writing efforts.

The plan is based on internationally accepted guidelines, published research and expertise from older adults and medical and social service professionals. A multidisciplinary DHS workgroup and partners convened forums around Oregon to gather local input, according to Kohn.