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Project HOPEFUL: Increasing Connection, Reducing Suicide Risk

September 14, 2023
Source: Administration for Community Living (ACL)

A Guest Post for Suicide Prevention Month

By Laura Shannonhouse, Erika LeBlanc, Matthew Fullen

Even though older adults are the most at-risk age group for suicide, they’re the least likely to get the services to prevent suicide. Home and community-based service providers, like the nutrition programs funded by the Older Americans Act (OAA), are uniquely positioned to offer supports and connections that can reduce this community’s risk of suicide.

“More than 25% of Americans 60+ live alone, those 85+ have the highest suicide rate of any age group, and up to 90% of older adults have been exposed to a traumatic event in their lifetime,” says Edwin Walker, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Aging at [the Administration for Community Living (ACL)]. “We know meaningful social connections can help prevent suicide — and fostering those connections is a core element of our nutrition and health promotion programs.”

The OAA nutrition programs have a three-pronged purpose: reduce food insecurity, hunger, and malnutrition; enhance socialization; and promote the health and well-being of older adults. They pay particular attention to reaching older adults with low income, people from underserved communities and rural areas, people with limited English proficiency, and people at risk of institutional care — all of whom may be at risk of isolation and mental health issues. 

Since 2017, ACL has funded “Innovations in Nutrition Programs and Services” grants to test and document innovative and promising practices to enhance the quality and effectiveness of OAA nutrition programs. With an Innovations grant in 2020, Dr. Laura Shannonhouse and her team created and tested a training program called BE WITH (Belonging and Empathy With Intentional Targeted Helping). Through the program, nutrition service volunteers who had received suicide intervention training conducted weekly supportive phone calls with at-risk older adults who receive home-delivered meals. Preliminary results showed that BE WITH reduced social isolation, loneliness, depression, and suicidal desire.

This year, ACL awarded a five-year grant to fund project HOPEFUL (Helping Older Persons Find Useful Links), which will work with the Georgia Division of Aging Services and the North Carolina Division of Aging and Adult Services to adapt, expand, and evaluate this promising program.

Through Project HOPEFUL, volunteers who provide home-delivered meals in Georgia and North Carolina will be trained in how to listen well, form meaningful connections with older adults, and respond to crises when needed. Implementation of the training program will shift from being university-run to being run by the aging services network. The aging services network also will learn how to adapt BE WITH for congregate meal programs, with the goal of improving the mental health and well-being of participants in group settings. 

Project HOPEFUL expects to reach at least 1,000 older adults over the five-year grant project. The project also will involve research to inform future replication and expansion.

As we look to the future, there are other reasons to be hopeful about mental health supports for older adults. Setting its sights on the next innovation, Project HOPEFUL aims to pilot a mental health coordination role that will serve as a bridge between the aging services network and local mental health providers. The outcomes of the pilot will lead to building a roadmap for how counseling professionals and aging services professionals can work together to improve the mental health of older adults.

[About the Authors:]
Dr. Laura Shannonhouse (Georgia State University) is working with co-principal investigators Erika LeBlanc, Ph.D. (University of Mississippi) and Matthew Fullen, Ph.D. (Virginia Tech); co-investigators Casey Barrio Minton (University of Tennessee-Knoxville), Alexander Kirpich (Georgia State University), and Julia Whisenhunt (University of West Georgia). This work is also supported by graduate students in the Georgia State University College of Education & Human Development’s Helping Others Provide Empathy Lab.

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