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DURHAM, N.C. -- Providing older Americans access to a specialist in depression in their primary doctor's clinic can significantly help reduce symptoms of depression and could help to reduce the alarming rate of suicide among the elderly, according to a Duke psychiatrist who specializes in treating older patients.

In testimony to be given on Thursday to the U.S. Senate's Special Committee on Aging, David Steffens, M.D., head of the division of geriatric psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center, will outline a model of care that has been successful in the research setting.

"Suicide is a serious public health problem and has a disproportionate effect on older Americans," said Steffens. "Older adults perceive the stigma of mental illness more than other age groups and they may be more reluctant to seek help from a specialty psychiatric clinic."

The model of care calls for use of a "depression care manager" who can manage specific depression cases under the supervision of the primary care physician. The depression care manager is specially trained in monitoring the use of antidepressant medications, and in providing problem solving therapy and psychotherapy. Use of such specialists has significantly reduced symptoms of depression and suicidal thinking among patients, according to Steffens. The model of care is currently used at Duke.

Steffens said that older men, particularly those who are Caucasian and over the age of 85, have the highest rate of completed suicide among all age groups.

The week of Sept. 10-16, 2006 is National Suicide Prevention Week.