Mental Health Part 2: Mental Illness and Suicide in Canada’s Seniors

Mental Health Part 2: Mental Illness and Suicide in Canada’s Seniors

Mental health awareness is growing, with campaigns like Bell’s “Let’s Talk” and the annual Mental Health Awareness Week, which runs in May across Canada. These are just a couple of examples of steps being taken by organizations to increase Canadians’ knowledge of mental health and illness and to reduce stigma. Reducing the stigma of mental illness is important for people to seek help and feel less isolated. Mental illness in seniors is associated with functional decline, family stress, greater risk of medical illness, and often reduced recovery from illness.

Related Content: Mental Health Part 1: Anxiety and Depression

Our information about mental health usually comes from the news, movies, shows, and literature, which can paint a grim and inaccurate picture. It is important to check our biases, examine myths, and educate ourselves to avoid stigmatizing ourselves or others.

Common Mental Health Myths

  • Myth #1: Mental illness isn’t a real illness. Mental illnesses have causes, symptoms, and treatments just like any physical illness. They create distress, don’t go away on their own, and often require help to get better.
  • Myth #2: Mental illness cannot affect me. One in five Canadians will experience mental illness in their lifetime. More than 1.8 million people over sixty years of age are living with a mental health problem or illness in Canada. Even if you never experience it, there is a high chance that a family member or friend will.
  • Myth #3: Mental illness is an excuse for poor behaviour. Sometimes people with mental illness will act in ways that are unexpected or ‘strange.’ It is important to remember that the illness — not the person — is behind the behaviour. People with mental illness may also make decisions that seem strange or unexpected just as people without mental illness do.
  • Myth #4: Bad parenting causes mental illness. Mental illnesses are caused by a combination of genetics, biology, environment, and life experiences. Family members and loved ones play a large role in support and recovery.
  • Myth #5: People with mental illnesses are violent and dangerous. People with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of crimes rather than commit them.
  • Myth #6: People don’t recover from mental illness. No one should expect to feel unwell forever. People with mental illnesses can and do lead productive, rich, and fulfilling lives. With the right support and treatment, people can learn how to manage their symptoms to get back to their goals.
  • Myth #7: People who experience mental illness are weak and cannot handle stress. Stress affects everyone. Those with a mental health history may actually be better at managing stress because their illness requires that they learn stress management and problem-solving tools.
  • Myth #8: Everyone gets depressed as they get older; it’s just part of aging. Ageism and mental health stigma create a significant barrier to older persons seeking help for mental health conditions.

Feelings of isolation and hopelessness are very real and intense

Suicide and Suicidal Thoughts

Suicide often carries its own stigma, which is difficult to disentangle from. People may want to end their lives for many reasons, but feelings of isolation and hopelessness are very real and intense. Suicide or a suicide attempt is usually an effort to escape a situation that feels overwhelming. Major life transitions, serious physical illness, a major loss, isolation, or substance use may all increase the risk for suicide or suicide attempts.

Signs that someone is suicidal may include giving possessions away; talking about death or ‘being done’ with this life or this world; talking about being trapped or in unbearable pain; increased use of alcohol, medication, or drugs; extreme mood swings; or withdrawal. These situations can be difficult to handle in someone we care about. The best way to assist those with suicidal thoughts is to talk with them honestly and assist them with getting help. Take what they say seriously and without judgment. Let them know they are important and you care about them, their life, and their problems. Make sure you talk in private to preserve their dignity and keep them calm. Encourage them to seek help, and offer to go with them if they would like the support. Talking about suicide, or asking someone if they are suicidal, does not increase the risk that someone will act on their feeling to commit suicide. It is important to ask people who are thinking about ending their life if they have a plan on when and how they would do so. They may be relieved to tell someone. If the person plans to end their life soon, they need help quickly; call a distress line, 911, or get them to medical care as soon as possible.

Support is key to recovery from mental illness.

Supporting Those with Mental Illness

Support is key to recovery from mental illness, and these support networks can be family, health-care professionals, friends, and neighbours. We know that social isolation is associated with higher levels of depression and suicide, so a senior’s social network is important to their health and well-being. Research shows that the more support a person has, the less likely they are to be hospitalized. Here are some of the ways you can support those with mental illness:

  • Get help early; it’s key to a quick recovery. You may be the first to notice something is wrong, so don’t be afraid to speak up and voice your concerns to people you care about.
  • Advocate for others. Getting help can be hard for people who are struggling, and accessing mental health services can be intimidating. Encouraging people to access services, taking them to appointments, and being consistent can help offset the negative effects of mental illness.
  • Provide social support to help with safety. A mental health crisis may occur whether or not a person is receiving treatment. Encourage them to seek help voluntarily. However, you may need to call emergency services if they are at risk of harming themselves or others. When the person is safe, it may be helpful to reflect on any new symptoms or triggers leading up to the crisis and reflect on what did or did not work for support.

Take what they say seriously and without judgment.

These topics are difficult to turn our minds to and may be very painful for some of us. Remember that mental illness can be treated successfully, and there is always hope where there is care and support. In the next article, we’ll share tips for maintaining mental health and wellness, the importance of prioritizing self-care, and ways to increase resilience in the face of challenges.

For more information about mental health and illness, see your eldercare portal, or see or

By Hailie Rondeau, RN

ARTACares is provided by HumanaCare, an Alberta-based health and wellness provider with more than thirty-five years of Canadian health care experience.