When seniors give up

SINGAPORE - Two facets revealed in reports on the latest suicide statistics might surprise: Warning signs tend to go undetected by family doctors and the group most vulnerable are seniors.

The high frequency of health professionals failing to read telltale signs of depression among the elderly needs to be addressed quickly.

An earlier National University Hospital (NUH) study showed that some 70 per cent of seniors who attempted suicide had seen a doctor in the previous month but were prescribed only painkillers for headaches or sleeping pills for insomnia.

A scheme by NUH to train junior doctors to deal with depression among the old should be emulated by other health institutions and ought to be extended to a wide range of health-care professionals, bearing in mind cultural inhibitions of local patients to baring emotions.

Also of concern is the vulnerability of those in their 50s who formed the highest proportion of those who committed suicide last year.

Understanding the trigger factors among seniors here is, of course, central to tackling the problem.

It should be viewed as a public health issue, and not just an individual problem, given the considerable impact of suicide on the victims' families and friends, medical and loss-of-life costs, and the resulting lost productivity.

With suicide numbers hitting a 20-year high, more programmes should be developed to screen for later-life depression, to provide adequate follow-up care, and to conduct health education on psychiatric illnesses.

Community-based prevention strategies should not stop at spotting and treating depression.

A focus on increasing social connectedness can be also useful - to multiply the ties people can depend on for support and to boost their ability to cope with pressures like unemployment, financial woes, and broken relationships.

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