21 September 2020.

Since 2013, suicide rates in Australia have continued to rise, and the increase has been particularly marked in men over the age of 45. New research using data from the 45 and Up Study is shedding some light on the way employment and the transition to retirement impacts on the risk of suicide and attempted suicide in older people.

Research snapshot

  • People who were unable to work, due to being sick, disabled or being a primary carer, were at twice the risk of attempted suicide, compared with those in work
  • The period of transition from work to retirement may be an important factor in suicide risk
  • Programs that facilitate continued employment or re-employment in older age – particularly for men – could be of benefit

Suicidal behaviour in older people is beginning to emerge as a public health issue but relatively little work has been done in this area to date. Findings from this new research have particular relevance in our current era of economic recession, where older people are often finding themselves unwillingly pushed out of the labour market.

The researchers from the University of Melbourne and Western Sydney University identified people from the 45 and Up Study cohort who had attempted or committed suicide and categorised them according to different categories of employment and retirement status. They found that people who were unable to work, due to being sick, disabled or being a primary carer, were around twice as likely to commit suicide compared with those in work. For people who had retired involuntarily due to redundancy or were unemployed, the risk of attempted suicide was around a third higher compared with those who had retired voluntarily. There was a similar pattern for the risk of suicide itself.

The authors say their findings have implications for preventing suicide in older people. They say the period of transition from work to retirement may be an important factor in suicide risk, as it is a change that affects social status, social interaction and mental health. They point out that conventional approaches to suicide prevention – involving screening and treatment for those at risk – have been more effective for women than men. They suggest that programs that facilitate continued employment or re-employment in older age – particularly for men – could be of benefit. People may also need more help in preparing for the financial, social and emotional transition that leaving the workforce may bring.

Another paper using 45 and Up Study data has pointed to ways in which we could improve suicide prevention in older people. The study from the Australian National University found that having an active social network – measured through the frequency of social group meetings, phone or personal contacts and number of confidants – was linked to lower rates of both suicide and self-harm in the 45 and Up Study cohort.

The study authors say that over and above any clinical interventions, community-based efforts to enhance social networks might build resilience and increase social support for older people when they find themselves in crisis and their thoughts turn dark.

Access the papers under discussion in this article here and here.

Learn more about the 45 and Up Study here.

*Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.