Aging, Mental Health, & Suicide Risk & Prevention with Dr. Peter Franz

By Longevity by Design, April 4, 2024

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This episode of Longevity by Design discusses mental health and suicide risk and prevention. The following topics are discussed: depression, suicide, substance abuse, social isolation, among others. This episode is intended to raise awareness of mental health issues and suicide risk and prevention. The topics discussed may be distressing or triggering for some individuals. Please proceed with caution if you continue to read this article.

Our mental health is vital for healthspan and lifespan, yet mental health and suicide remain difficult topics for many. In this enlightening episode of Longevity by Design, host Dr. Gil Blander welcomes Dr. Peter Franz to explore the profound connection between aging, mental health, and suicide. Dr. Franz, an expert in mental health and suicide risk and prevention, shares insights on the prevalence of mental health issues and their impact on our lifespan and healthspan. Through an engaging discussion, they shed light on the critical need for understanding and addressing mental health to live longer, healthier lives.

The conversation dives into the statistics on mental health and suicide, highlighting how these issues are more common and impactful than many may realize. Dr. Franz emphasizes the importance of raising awareness on these issues, accessible resources and interventions, and the role of social support in combating isolation—a significant factor in mental health deterioration and increased suicide risk. He also discusses other major risk factors for mental health and suicide risk, including the effect of age. The discussion also addresses barriers to seeking mental health care and the stigmatization surrounding these topics.

Dr. Franz offers practical advice on mental health and suicide prevention, stressing the importance of social support and seeking professional help when needed. He advocates for a holistic approach to health, including social connections and engagement, and the significance of the inextricable link between our mental health and physical health. This episode not only educates on the links between aging, mental health, and suicide risk and prevention but also encourages listeners to take proactive steps toward mental wellness, underscoring the message that taking care of one's mental health is essential for living a long, healthy, and fulfilling life.



Episode highlights

  • Introduction: 00:00-02:13
  • Why did Dr. Peter Franz get interested in mental health and suicide risk and prevention?: 02:14-03:51 
  • What is the prevalence of mental health issues in the US and globally? 03:52-05:12
  • What is the prevalence of suicide?: 05:13-07:01
  • What is the effect of mental health and suicide on healthspan and lifespan?: 07:02-08:32
  • What was the effect of COVID-19 on mental health and suicide risk?: 08:33-11:11
  • Are there particular demographic groups that are at higher risk for mental health issues and suicide?: 11:12-12:22
  • How does access to firearms influence suicide risk?: 12:23-13:35
  • Does where you live influence mental health and suicide risk?: 13:36-14:45
  • Are there differences among age groups for mental health issues and suicide risk?: 14:46-15:25
  • Does marital status or social connections impact mental health and suicide risk?: 15:26-16:11
  • What are the major risk factors that increase the risk of suicide?: 16:12-17:20
  • What should you do if you think someone is at risk for suicide?: 17:21-22:02
  • The importance of social connections mental health: 22:03-23:51
  • The link between mental health and physical activity: 23:52-24:34
  • What can you do to help your own and others mental health?: 24:35-25:56
  • The effect of traumatic life events on mental health: 25:57-27:08
  • Do genetics influence mental health?: 27:09-28:22
  • What to know about seeing a mental health care professional: 28:23-32:46
  • Generational differences and societal changes in discussing mental health: 32:47-36:17
  • The number one predictor and treatment for suicide risk: 36:18-37:20
  • Dr. Peter Franz’s top tip for improving health: 37:21-39:14

About Peter Franz, Ph.D.

Peter Franz is an Assistant Professor at Yeshiva University, with a secondary faculty appointment at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He earned his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Harvard University, and completed his Clinical Internship at Columbia University Medical Center. At Yeshiva and Einstein, he teaches courses on Statistics, Research Methods, Cognition, and Emotion, and he is the director of the Risk Prediction and Prevention Laboratory (RiPPL). His research focuses on better understanding suicide and other self-injurious behaviors, as well as developing accessible digital interventions for people at risk for suicide.


Prevalence of mental health issues and suicide 

The statistics are staggering—approximately 50% of Americans will meet the criteria for a mental disorder like depression, anxiety, or substance abuse at some point in their lives. Even more concerning, around 49,000 Americans died by suicide in the past year (2023) alone, with over a million additional suicide attempts. As Dr. Franz states, "It's a tremendous public health concern."

These staggering statistics reveal that mental health issues and suicide are not isolated incidents but widespread challenges that significantly impact society. Dr. Franz underscores the necessity of addressing these issues not only for the sake of individual well-being but also because of their profound implications on overall lifespan and healthspan. By highlighting the staggering prevalence of mental health struggles and suicide, the conversation advocates for a broader understanding and acceptance, urging society to discuss and act on mental health as a critical component of overall health and well-being.

"It's a really common thing for people to experience mental health challenges...there is someone out there who is capable of helping you in a way that really works for you," says Dr. Franz. Let's embrace mental well-being as an essential component of our overall health.


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Breaking down barriers: The fight against mental health and suicide stigmatization

One of the pivotal themes discussed by Dr. Franz is the stigmatization surrounding mental health and suicide and the consequent barriers to seeking treatment. He points out that despite the high prevalence of mental health issues and suicide, many individuals fail to seek help due to fear of judgment and lack of understanding from others. This stigma not only prevents people from accessing necessary care but also perpetuates a cycle of silence and suffering.

The discussion emphasizes the importance of open conversations and the role of societal support in mental health care. Dr. Franz's insights serve as a call to action to destigmatize mental health and suicide discussions, encouraging a shift towards more empathetic and supportive attitudes to beneficially aid mental health issues and prevent suicides.


Risk factors for mental health and suicide

Who is at the highest risk for suicide? Gender is one factor, with men accounting for a disproportionate number of suicide deaths compared to women. However, women are more likely to attempt suicide. Age also plays a role. Suicide ranks in the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. across all ages. While it is the second leading cause of death for those aged 14-44 years, older adults aged over 65 years (especially older men) are at the highest risk.

Other risk factors include living in rural areas with less access to mental healthcare, traumatic life events, substance abuse, and the biggest risk factor being prior suicidal thoughts or attempts. Social isolation is a key risk factor as well. As Dr. Franz notes, "social isolation is a vulnerability factor for mental health concerns across the board and suicide."


Aging and mental health

The intersection of aging and mental health is critical for health and lifespan. Older adults are especially vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation. Dr. Franz stresses that just as we work on physical fitness, working on our mental health through practices like therapy and social engagement is vital as we age.


The impact of COVID-19 on mental health and suicide

Dr. Franz discusses the profound impact COVID-19 has had on global mental health. There was a clear increase in mental health concerns due to the pandemic, although the effect on suicide rates is more complex. Initially, data suggested a slight decrease in suicide rates, followed by an increase. The pandemic "fundamentally changed the social landscape of our lives," increasing isolation and exacerbating mental health issues, says Dr. Franz.


Strategies to improve mental health and prevent suicide

So what can we do to improve mental health and prevent suicide? Dr. Franz emphasizes a holistic approach to mental health and suicide prevention. Exercise, a healthy diet, and sleep are important lifestyle factors for mental health. Also, a major theme in the conversation is the critical role of social support and connections in mental health and suicide prevention. "I think it's really important for people to be able to have opportunities for interactions with others…we want to make sure that people have a supportive and close social network," says Dr. Franz.

He advocates for proactive engagement and communication as key strategies in identifying and supporting individuals with mental health struggles and at risk for suicide. By discussing mental health issues, the impact of isolation, and the importance of connectedness, Dr. Franz stresses that being part of a supportive community can significantly reduce the risk of suicide. This insight calls for collective efforts to build stronger, empathetic connections and ensure that those struggling with their mental health and suicidal thoughts are not alone, reinforcing the importance of social support in saving lives.

With his work at the Risk Prediction and Prevention Laboratory, Dr. Franz highlights the development of accessible digital solutions aimed at individuals at risk of suicide and fostering an environment where people feel safe to discuss their struggles. This innovative approach seeks to overcome traditional barriers to mental health care and suicide prevention, offering new avenues for support and intervention. As mental health issues and suicide continue to challenge society, the incorporation of technology in preventative strategies marks a critical step forward.

Dr. Franz also discusses the importance of the inextricable link between mental and physical health, highlighting how activities like exercise not only benefit physical health but also significantly benefit mental health. He points to exercise, sleep, and nutrition as key factors that can positively influence mental health. This holistic view reinforces the notion that taking care of one's physical health is inherently linked to improving mental health and ultimately contributes to a longer, healthier life.

Dr. Franz also emphasizes the importance of seeking professional help when dealing with mental health struggles and for suicide prevention.


Therapies for mental health and suicide prevention

Seeking professional mental health support should be as acceptable as seeing a physician for physical ailments.  “There are lots of treatments available for individuals…that can meet the needs of a specific individual. They range from talk therapy to medications, and many things in between that can really target in very specific ways an individual's unique needs,” says Dr. Franz.

For those apprehensive about therapy, Dr. Franz helps by demystifying the process. An initial intake appointment allows the therapist to learn about your history and develop an individualized treatment plan in partnership with you. While every person's journey is different, therapy provides a supportive space to understand your challenges and find positive coping strategies aligned with your personal goals. When professional help is needed, mental health treatment can be highly effective and collaborative.


Top tip for healthspan

“Take care of yourself. Listen to what your mind and body are telling you about yourself, and when you feel like you might be needing it, to look for help from a mental health professional, a medical professional, a friend, I think that it's really important that we're all looking after ourselves and identifying when it might be time for us to look for support from other people. We are a social species after all, and we're built to provide support. So looking to others, I think for that kind of support is something that we can all do and that would improve our life in tremendous ways” says Dr. Franz.

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Longevity by Design

Longevity by Design is a podcast for individuals looking to experience longer, healthier lives. In each episode, Dr. Gil Blander and Ashley Reaver join an industry expert to explore a personalized health journey. The show helps you access science-backed information, unpack complicated concepts, learn what’s on the cutting edge of longevity research and the scientists behind them. Tune into Longevity by Design and see how to add years to your life, and life to your years.

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