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Picture of lonely old woman sitting on the wheelchair while looking at sunlight. Shot in the park from Shutterstock.com

SOS: “Very worrying that many elderly are turning to suicide as the only choice to end their pain and struggles”

The number of people committed suicide in 2017 reached the lowest since 2012, however, the highest number of elderly taking their own lives were recorded in 2017.

In its press release, Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) stated that there were 361 reported suicides in Singapore in 2017, the lowest since 2012.

It noted that from 2012 to 2016, the average suicide rate was 9.14 deaths by suicide per 100,000 residents and added, "2017 saw this rate dip to an all-time low of 7.74 deaths by suicide per 100,000 residents,"

While the total number of suicide deaths is at its lowest in recent years, SOS noted that the number of the elderly aged 60 and above who took their own lives in 2017 has risen to 129, the highest recorded.

According to SOS, the high prevalence of suicide mortality among the elderly is a worrying trend in Singapore. 2011 saw 361 suicide deaths recorded in Singapore as well. However, elderly suicides in 2017 is an alarming 123 percent of that in 2011.

Ms Christine Wong, Executive Director of Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), expressed her concern, "It is very worrying that many elderly are turning to suicide as the only choice to end their pain and struggles, when they should be enjoying their lustre of the golden years."

"The ageing population in Singapore is set to bring more challenges to current available social support services. There is imminent need for stronger support networks as the number of elderly Singapore residents living alone continues to increase," she added.

SOS noted that the usage patterns of several SOS services indicated that increasingly more attention needs to be directed towards those aged 60 and above.

According to SOS' observation, the 24-hour hotline are favoured by the older demographic group. Of those who disclosed their age, 23 per cent of incoming calls to SOS were made by callers aged 60 and above in 2017. However, calls made by the elderly dropped by 18 per cent from 6,904 calls in 2016 to 5,652 calls in 2017.

"These figures are a cause for concern, especially when the number of elderly suicides in this age group is at a record high. We need to find out the barriers that prevent them from getting through to SOS, and if they know where and what are the other available resources to seek help," said Ms Wong.

Some common struggles cited by elderly callers to SOS, were social disconnection, the fear of becoming a burden to family and friends, and impairments to daily functioning due to physical challenges and deteriorating mental health. These concerns predisposes socially isolated elderly to depression and suicidal thoughts when struggles go undetected and unaddressed.

“For the past years, our community outreach education and engagements targeted mainly youths and adults who are technologically savvy as these efforts were concentrated on various social media platforms. The drop in deaths by suicide in these age groups may be attributed to the concerted efforts of all social service partners (e.g., Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health, Agency for Integrated Care, Schools, Mental Health Agencies, and Youth Agencies) and many others in the community, even members of the public who are aware of SOS suicide prevention work," Ms Wong said.

"Despite the drop in the number of deaths for this age group, we must continue to emphasise the important role of community and an individual’s social support groups. We must continue to step up our efforts and not let go of our concerted efforts thinking that a slight decrease makes a difference on suicide prevention and awareness among the youths," she added.

Ms Wong, however, explained that the elderly may as a result fall through the cracks and may be unaware of the resources available. When the elderly are less aware of the available resources that they can approach, they may feel a strong sense of helplessness which may exacerbate social isolation.

"Apart from reaching out to the elderly community, we have to continue educating the loved ones and caregivers about the importance of mental wellness in the elderly in a more effective manner to increase awareness and detection, and help erode some of the stigmas they hold," she said.

Beyond just being a reporting figure, SOS also noted that the annual suicide statistics also reveal the reality of struggles faced by ordinary Singaporeans. While suicide remains taboo and often overlooked in the country's society, it is encouraging to see many in the community, especially the youths come forward to express their desire to make a difference.

SOS noted that Ms Wong will be stepping down from the Executive Director position of SOS on 31st July 2018, after 10 years of service in the field of suicide work. As the second longest serving Executive Director since SOS’ inception in 1969, she leaves behind a legacy by making remarkable contributions in our community.

"I am heartened to see that the work we do in SOS impact so many from all walks of life. Keeping in mind the belief that suicide is preventable, the dedicated staff and volunteers at SOS will continue the great work to support those who are distraught. Suicide prevention work will never stop here, and the focus shall always be to help our clients find hope," Ms Wong said.