Provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control showed overall suicides increased by 2.6%, an increase of more than 1,200 deaths from 2021's final numbers. Suicides among people of all races aged 65 and above increased by 8.1%. According to 2021's final numbers, suicide rates for ages 75-84 were 19.6%, for 85 and above 22.4%.
"Why on Earth would this population – white males, 75 or older – be at risk for suicide?" Dr. Jennifer Bauwens, the Family Research Council's director of the Center for Family Studies, wondered on Washington Watch Wednesday.
"Sometimes you see this age group, and they may not show any symptoms until they start retiring. [But] they go into retirement; maybe they have a loss of a spouse or loss of relationships, a loss of meaning right? They're not productive in that sense of how they've lived their whole life. So now they're faced with What is my life about?"
Those questions, Bauwens noted, create a certain vulnerability. "Religion, social support, having a sense of meaning and purpose in life are very protective. They prevent people from committing suicide," she said. "They have a purpose, and that's what we're not seeing happen in our world."
The Cleveland Clinic, a nonprofit academic group that integrates clinical and hospital care with research and education, starts that higher suicide risk window at age 65. A year ago, the 65-plus group accounted for 17% of all suicides in the U.S. in spite of comprising just 12% of the population. Once they made that decision, they were much more adept at seeing it through. One in 200 youth who attempted suicide completed it, compared to 1 in 4 for older adults, the Clinic said.
Older white men "are the demographic that is most likely to complete suicide," Dr. John Sanitato, a geriatric psychiatrist, said. The sense of loss, whether relational, financial or a perceived lack of significance, is real. "I know it sounds like a stereotype, but it's borne out by statistics," Sanitato said.
Bauwens argues that a spiritual connection is an important element in suicide prevention, yet religion, more and more, seems to be marginalized in society. The church for generations has been considered a guiding force in key social questions, but more than 60% of respondents to a Pew Research Center poll in 2019 said the church should stay out of politics.
Bauwens believes there's a connection between loss of meaning in one's life, suicide, and the reduced role of faith.
"I don't even have to do a big study. There has to be a connection – because we are wired to have a meaningful, purposeful life and to have that through a connection with God," she said.
Scripture confirms when that connection with the Creator is lost, Satan is there to fill the void. Bauwens references John 10:10.
"The devil comes to steal, kill, and destroy; and people aren't recognizing that there is an enemy that we are battling who is about killing us, stealing from us and destroying us. If you don't have an anchor in Jesus, when your world falls apart when you retire, or maybe you have loss, where are you going to turn?" Bauwens asked.
Elderly Christians are not immune to the sense of loss, she said – adding that the Church as an institution needs to recognize that.
"If we can remain hopeful in the face of adversity, we are going to have the most influence because people are looking for hope-filled people [who] can rise up in the midst of what's going on in our world and say, 'There is a way through this, and there is a way to not just get through, but to thrive,'" Bauwens said.
"We can only get that in connection to the Holy Spirit," she concluded. "That's not something that we can drum up, but that comes through a relationship with Jesus … because He is hope. [And] if we're not anchored in that hope, we can't offer that hope."