Preventing Suicide amongst Senior Citizens

Sri Lanka no longer tops the world ranking in suicide and that is good news.

While that is a thing of the past, successfully managed through a Presidential Task Force appointed in 1997 to bring down the rate of suicide in the country, we cannot pat ourselves on the back.  No, not yet.  Not when our world ranking on suicide is at 29 out 157 countries, and still showing up ‘Red’ on the World map with approximately 14.2 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people.

Police statistics indicate that the number of those taking their own lives has not changed very much these past few years.  In fact, police reports show that 3,135 persons committed suicide in 2019, while, 2018 recorded 3,281, and 3,263 in 2017, with the number of men far outnumbering women.

Time was when pesticides were the preferred choice for those wanting to end their life.  But, guidelines set out by the Presidential Task Force which banned the ready availability of extremely toxic pesticides, ensured that those despairing of live had limited access to them.  The government of the day also decriminalised the act of suicide in 1998, while the Ministry of Education had launched a Life Skills programme to help tackle the problem, that same year.

But while the number of pesticide related suicides have dropped, police statistics indicate that most, both men and women choose strangulation/hanging as the means to end their lives.  Here again, the number of men taking their lives thus, is far more than women.   In the three years mentioned above, the number of men choosing this method range in the 1500’s while women are in the three hundreds.   Of interest too is that it is men over 21 years who average over 100 suicides per year using various different modes to take their own lives.

In the case of women of the same age group, the numbers rarely reach a hundred.  Between the ages of 8 to 20 the numbers for both sexes fluctuate and rarely reach 30, according to Police Statistics.

Males. be they young adults, middle aged or seniors commit suicide for a variety of reasons says Senior Mental Health Officer and Counsellor at the Sahanaya Resource and Information Centre, Hema Nishantha Withanage.   For the younger males it is usually about being unemployed or underemployed.   Some experience frustration when they are unable to obtain employment in keeping with their qualifications, or are forced to choose a career more in keeping with the expectations of their parents.   And then there are the others who simply feel inadequate in terms of providing for their families.   As the cost of living spirals upwards, and their earnings take a downward trend or remain static, men in the 40’s to 50’s age group tend to regard suicide as a way out.   There are quite a few, says Withanage who take on as many overtime hours as possible, or other forms of work to make ends meet.  But the stress of working extra hours, with hardly any time for relaxation could finally take its toll; stress related ailments or depression leading to suicide.

Of deeper concern is also that the number of male senior citizens who opt to end their lives.  As mentioned earlier, the mode of suicide for all these age groups is strangulation/hanging, and it remains so amongst those over the age of 50.  In fact, in the three years between 2017 and 2019, an average of 140 men over the age of 71 years, chose strangulation/hanging as a means of dying. In the same three years, a total of 270 men and 55 women, 277 males and 49 women, and 244 males and 58 women, over the age of 71  have picked various methods including hanging to end their lives.

What drives our senior citizens, particularly men to end their lives at that stage? “Culturally,” explains Withanage, “most women continue to feel useful; minding their grandchildren or providing care in some form or the other usually to their own families.”  But that is different for the menfolk.  Used to being the bread winners, and generally leaving the care of children and household chores to their wives, come retirement, they find themselves feeling unwanted and aimless.  Perhaps, this may not be so pronounced amongst those living in urban areas or with secure income levels.  They may have more options to pursue some hobby or visit places of interest.  Not so for those who have limited or no income at all.  Even for those who, and this applies to both sexes, continue to live with or close to their children, old-age could become one monotonous journey, if they lack quality time with their children or friends.  While government employees receive a pension, those who work in the private sector often end up depending on their children for financial help.  While even in the case of the former, there have been instances of children using up the pension, Sri Lanka’s private sector workers have been in the habit of utilising their Provident Fund and other retirement emoluments for their children’s weddings or similar expenses.

This year’s theme for World Suicide Prevention Day, which falls on September 10 each year, is “Working together to Prevent Suicide.”

Perhaps it is a good time to focus on how we could address the issues senior citizens face and help them find self-worth, just as much as we work on preventing suicide amongst the younger members of our population.

Says Withanage, there are senior citizens associations in most villages, which help members remain active and organise trips and events to mark various festivals.  However, are such associations alone enough to hold their interests?  Unlike in most developed countries, Sri Lanka dose not advocate volunteering; certainly it is not something we see very much amongst younger folk, though there is a tendency to volunteer with various religious or social organizations in our older years.  Such practices should be introduced into our culture, starting at a young age so it becomes a part of life.  As well, we could take a leaf from developed countries and offer adult literary courses; after all, it is never too late to learn and what better time to take up a hobby or learn a new skill than as seniors who have lots of time on their hands.  Apart from the vistas of opportunity such new skills and knowledge would bring them it would also afford them the opportunity to make new friends.

As Withanage points out Development Officers and Counsellors appointed to the various District Secretariats should be assigned the responsibility of working with seniors and identifying the various activities they could be involved in.

Certainly, it is time Sri Lanka focussed on harnessing the potential senior citizens have to offer and help them feel more useful and accepted in society without feeling so unwanted that death seems a better option.



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