Physical Illness Assumed to be Main Reason for Older Adult Suicide, According to Colorado State University Research

European Americans believe that physical illness is the main trigger of older adult suicide, according to a study by Colorado State University Professor Silvia Sara Canetto and Bryan Stice, a graduate of Colorado State’s doctoral program in counseling psychology who now is with University of Oklahoma Health Services.

Both female and male respondents endorsed this view. Because of unusually high rates of older adult suicide recorded among European Americans in the Mountain West, the study focused on the suicide beliefs of European-Americans living in this region. The study was recently published in the journal, Clinical Gerontologist: The Journal of Aging and Mental Health.

Among older adults, the highest suicide rates are found in European-Americans at a rate of about 34 suicides per 100,000. Gender is a significant factor in older adult suicides, with older men’s rates about eight times higher than the rates of same-aged women. European-American men older than 85 have the highest suicide rates – hovering around 55 suicides per 100,000. Among older men, the lowest suicide rates are found in men of African-American descent. Among older women, the lowest rates are recorded among women of Native-American descent. Suicide rates also vary by region of the country, with higher rates in the Mountain West region. The gender and ethnic variability in older adult suicide rates suggests that aging or illness alone do not explain older adult suicide and points to the importance of understanding ethnic-specific social norms of older suicide.

This study’s findings add to past evidence of a belief, among European-Americans, that physical illness is the most acceptable and understandable reason for suicide. This belief in the logic of suicide in the face of physical illness may act as a cultural norm.  

"Cultural beliefs about suicide provide a blueprint, a script for action," Canetto said. "These cultural scripts define conditions in which suicide is permissible or even accepted."

Individuals who are sick may see themselves, or may be seen by others, as experiencing a condition calling for suicide. They may feel, or be made to feel, that suicide is a reasonable response to health problems. Considering that physical illness is more common among older adults than other age groups, the belief in the logic of suicide when ill may be particularly powerful as a prescription for older adults.

"The fact that both women and men believe that physical illness is a key factor in older adult suicide, and at the same time men are more likely than women to act on this belief – as documented by the fact that men represent a majority of older adult suicides – may have to do with the fact that, among European-Americans, suicide is considered male behavior," Canetto said. "Studies indicate that among European-Americans, taking one’s life is viewed as a powerful and daring act, a behavior consistent with masculinity."

For men, the acceptability of suicide under conditions of physical illness may be amplified by dominant ideologies of masculinity with their emphasis on youthfulness, physical power, physical autonomy and physical integrity, Canetto said. European-American men may more vulnerable to dominant ideologies of suicide and masculinity than ethnic minority men because European-American may perceive these ideologies as a relevant model.