Older Adults & Mental Health
Depression an anxiety are not a normal part of aging.
Growing older should be filled with relaxing days spent with friends and family. However for almost 20% of Americans 55 and up, their “golden years” are clouded by mental health struggles, the two most common being depression and anxiety. Major life changes, such as retirement or loss of a spouse, can trigger mental health issues for some. Although rates of depression and anxiety increase as people get older, they are not a normal part of aging and symptoms shouldn’t be ignored.
Untreated depression often leads to unnecessary distress and suffering, and impaired physical, mental, and social function. It can also have a negative impact on medical treatments for other chronic illnesses. Older Americans with depression visit the doctor and emergency room more often, use more medication, and stay longer in the hospital than those without a depressive disorder. Almost 50% of older adults with depression also have late-life anxiety, however anxiety in this age group may be underreported, as older adults are much less likely to report symptoms of a mental health disorder.
About 80% of all cases of depression in older adults are treatable, yet less than half of those suffering seek out treatment. Why is that? For many, the social stigmatization of a mental health disorder is more damaging than the mental health disorder itself. The foundation of this stigma was laid in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when prominent psychologists essentially delegitimized many mental health disorders. Portrayals of people with mental health disorders in the media, the state of mental health institutions at the time, and an inadequate social support structure furthered this harmful stigmatization. These attitudes disproportionately affected both the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers’ attitudes towards mental health care.
How do I know if I have late-life anxiety or depression?
Depression is a fairly common mental health disorder, often characterized by sadness or listlessness. However these are quite often not the main symptoms for older adults. Late-life depression may also cause:
Confusion or attention problems, which can mimic symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease
In general, if a person is struggling with their daily routine and activities for weeks at a time, it may be a sign of depression.
While the prevalence of anxiety in older adults is comparable to other age groups, anxiety can manifest in different ways depending on a person’s age. Common symptoms of anxiety in older adults include:
Many of these anxiety symptoms are also common with some heart conditions, so it’s important to be evaluated by a medical professional.
If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, you can start by taking a free mental health screening. Then reach out to your primary care physician to discuss your concerns. They can refer you to a mental health provider who specializes in geriatric psychiatry. This is very important because some medications commonly used can affect older adults differently. Don’t forget that just talking to friends or family about mental health struggles can also have a positive impact on a person’s mental health.
Mental Health Care Today
Luckily, mental health issues no longer carry the same stigma as they once did and the percentage of those receiving mental health treatment in some form continues to rise. Awareness of mental health issues continues to grow making it far easier for people to identify and seek out treatment for their own mental health issues. In order to effectively reduce the rates of mental health disorders in older Americans, open communication about mental health coupled with financial and/or technological assistance in accessing resources like online therapy may hold the key.
SAMHSA’s national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP for information and referrals.