Health Society

Why Are Elderly Australians Taking Their Own Lives?

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Last Christmas Eve, at a dementia care facility in suburban Sydney, Steve Atkins’ 93-year-old mother decided her time had come. Her son had recently told her he would not be spending Christmas Day with her. It was not her first attempt, nor was it without forewarning.

“When she was told she was going into care, and her GP told her that, she immediately said ‘I will kill myself’,” Mr Atkins said recently at a cafe in central Sydney.

Mona Atkins has two different kinds of dementia and also suffers from bipolar, undiagnosed for much of her life. She spent about two weeks in hospital after that suicide attempt.

In the mid-20th century, as pensions became commonplace and living standards improved, the rate of suicide among older people began a gradual decline. However in the past 15 years that trend has bottomed out, worrying groups that advocate for the aged.

“It seems that the suicide stream is running again towards an increase in rates,” Professor Diego De Leo, from Griffith University, says.

In 2013, men aged 85 and over had the highest rate of suicide of any age group in Australia, according to ABS data. In the same year, if you brought the age range down to 65 and over, the number of deaths was 396 — 16 per cent of all suicides. (While an ageing Australia may affect the rate, the statistics do compensate for population.)

Suicide is the leading cause of death for men aged 15-19, and affects those aged 18-44 most profoundly. But what’s behind a phenomenon the Council on the Ageing (CoTA) has labelled “the suicides we choose to ignore”?

‘A life with too many difficulties’

It was a Wednesday in August in the Jubilee Room of the NSW State Parliament. Mr Atkins, 67, was telling his story for a room full of medical professionals, politicians and other stakeholders, because how could he not?

For Mr Atkins, suicide has reared its head with an almost unfathomable regularity. His first experience was in 1969, when his mother tried to kill herself in front of him. In 1987 it was his son, who even before his high school graduation had decided he was a failure in life.

“He spent three-and-a-half days in intensive care being told he’d die or be a vegetable,” Mr Atkins says.

A few years later it was Mr Atkins’ friend, Martin — a poet, novelist and son of two famous Australian writers, one of whom also happened to take her own life.

More years passed and the same story played out. Mr Atkins lost colleagues at the CSIRO where he worked and eventually, after a combination of chronic fatigue and some bad medication he took to treat his depression, he began to think that perhaps he, too, was not fit for this world.

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