Is the NHS failing the elderly?

By Lynsey Downie
Sub-edited by Jasmine Wing and Philippa Strachan (@philippastrac)

A recent study, conducted by the University of Manchester adds to building speculation that the NHS needs re-strategising. The team found that self-harm increases rapidly with age despite its lack of publication and media coverage. Shockingly, data showed GP patients aged 75 to 81 were over 30% more likely to self-harm than individuals aged 65 to 74, and individuals over 85 years old were 76% more likely to self-harm than 65 to 74-year-olds.

Press coverage and research regarding elderly suicide rates and self-harm is next to nothing. The team at the University of Manchester & Keele, led by Carolyn Chew-Graham, found an alarming lack of published data on suicide and self-harm prevention of individuals aged 65 or above. This led the group to conduct a study on patients of this age group, at 674 different general practices across the UK, in order to assess the primary care of these individuals.

Data showed that the referral rates of those who self-harmed were incredibly low, in which only 12% of these individuals were seen by medical specialists after the incident. Of those referred, 12% were prescribed tricyclic antidepressants (TCA) which can be fatal if overdosed. During the study period, 81% of the participants who had self-harmed did so by overdosing, which highlights the need for a revisit of self-harm prevention.

Carolyn Chew-Graham, a professor at Keele University, told the Independent: “Since drug ingestion is one of the main methods of self-harm, we highlight the need to prescribe less toxic medication in older adults for the management of both mental illness and pain-related conditions.”

This research, published in the Lancet Psychiatry on 15th October this year, is of the utmost importance as it highlights the vulnerability of the elderly due to unique psychosocial stress-inducers such as bereavement and social isolation that other age groups aren’t always significantly exposed to. The research also backs up the data from the National Office of Statistics reporting that, in line with current statistics, elderly suicide is set to rise to 25% by 2046.

Overall, the paper published by Manchester and Keele University sheds light on the lack of self-harm research involving the elderly and acts as a positive driving force for the leaders of primary care, such as General Practitioners and medicinal specialists, to hopefully soon implement beneficial suicide prevention techniques based on specific physical and mental needs of a given age group.

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