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Aging and Disability Networks Playing a Key Role in Suicide Prevention

September 24, 2020

By Tom Moran, Deputy Administrator for Regional Operations and Partnership Development

According to a recent CDC report, over 40% of U.S. adults report struggles with mental health or substance use. Nearly 11% reported seriously considering suicide over the last 30 days. Those who report that they are unpaid caregivers were more significantly more likely to have mental health problems than non-caregivers. Although anyone can experience a behavioral health condition, like depression, substance abuse, or suicidal ideation, the data tells us that older adults and people with disabilities are disproportionally impacted by these issues and are less likely to receive treatment.

CDC also reports that suicide rates among our nation’s youth have increased 56% since 2007. It is the second leading cause of death amongst individuals age 15 – 24. Data shows that youth with disabilities are four times more likely to think about suicide than their nondisabled peers.

The good news is that there are many resources available that can lead to faster diagnosis and treatment and help prevent social isolation, increased disability, and other problems.

As we observe Suicide Prevention Month in September, I can’t help but reflect on the key role that the aging and disability networks in ensuring those we serve maintain their mental health and stay socially connected. The value these networks provide – their capacity to deliver personalized, impactful, and cost-effective services that meet social determinants of health – is truly unparalleled. And our partnerships with state and community behavioral health providers remain critical for connecting folks with the specialized services they may need to prevent and treat mental health and substance use disorders. Below are some great examples of work across ACL to promote positive mental health and prevent suicide.

The national nutrition network has been hard at work ensuring folks get the sustenance that they need, and have opportunities to stay connected to one another and their communities. The Older American’s Act meal programs have always provided benefits far beyond a meal – they are a gateway to other resources, often connecting older adult to interventions before problems become crises, they provide nutrition education, and they create opportunities for socialization. And some of them are tackling suicide prevention directly. For example, with funding from ACL, a team led by researchers at Georgia State University provided the 14-hour evidence-based Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) to equip 160 volunteers who deliver meals to older adults at their homes with skills to do a suicide intervention.  These volunteers performed more than 60 suicide interventions in just a few months before services were interrupted due to Covid-19. 

ACL also continues to invest in both the development and the delivery of health promotion and disease prevention programs. In this time of social distancing, many of these programs have found creative and tech savvy ways to keep people engaged remotely. The ACL National Chronic Disease Self-Management Education Resource Center will be hosting a webinar on September 28, 2020, from 2-3:30 pm ET, highlighting how community-based organizations can deliver interventions to reduce mental stress and prevent suicide during this critical time.

ACL funds the Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities (MHDD) National Training Center. The Center works to improve mental health services and supports for people with developmental disabilities by serving as a national clearinghouse that provides access to the most current evidence-based, trauma-informed, culturally responsive practices that address the mental health needs of individuals with developmental disabilities.

Our Office for American Indian, Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian Programs recently partnered with Dr. Alec Thundercloud, Director of the SAMHSA Office of Tribal Affairs and Policy. Dr. Thundercloud shared that in 2018, the suicide rate for American Indian/Alaskan Native (AI/AN) populations (22.1 per 100,000) was much higher than the overall U.S. suicide rate (14.2 per 100,000). Our Title VI programs fulfill an important role in supporting the mental health of the AI/AN elder population. They provide nutrition and supportive services that offer critical social contact that can help reduce the risk of depression and isolation experienced by many home-bound AI/AN Elders. In 2018, Title VI grantees provided over 2.6 million home-delivered meals to more than 22,000 American Indian/Alaskan Native/Native Hawaiian elders. Title VI programs also provided more than 400,000 home visits and over 350,000 units of telephone support to their elders. This type of consistent, in-person support to elders alleviates loneliness, social isolation and connects elders with the community.

ACL’s National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR)’s portfolio in mental health, promotes protective factors for people with a wide range of disabilities and impairments across populations of all ages. As one example, research conducted on the impact of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), on psychological distress among persons with Traumatic Brain Injury. ACT is a psychotherapy, derived from Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), aimed at enhancing meaning in one’s life and changing behavior through helping them accept their own thoughts and feelings without judgement, helping them identify personal values, setting activity goals consistent with those values, and committing to pursue personal values-based activities. Additional research and programming utilizing evidence-based programs, such as the Wellness Recovery Action Plan Program, are particularly important for supporting those with serious mental illness, who are at increased risk of suicide.

ACL continues to invest in research, programs, and practices to support positive mental health for older adults and persons with disabilities. I encourage you to check out the resources below to learn more. I am extremely proud of what our aging and disability networks are doing to join the fight.


Last modified on 09/24/2020

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