Why Mental Health is Often Overlooked in Older Populations and What Caregivers Do to Change This

Special to Palmetto Counseling’s Blog | July 2, 2019 5:55 PM EDT
This issue features an article by Christian Worstell

Understanding the Issue

Did you know that in 2010, the highest rate of suicide was among adults 85 years of age and older?

It certainly was surprising news to me, and likely to many others as well. But the truth is that mental health is often overlooked in older individuals, and it’s a growing issue.

According to The Mental Health and Substance Use Workforce for Older Adults, about 8 million adults over age 65 have one or more mental health or substance abuse problem. 

And many studies show that mental illness is underrecognized and underdiagnosed in this older population.  

In fact, in one study, 23 older adults screened positive for depression, but less than 40 percent of them were receiving any treatment. 

Our culture has brought awareness to mental illness in younger adults but has forgotten that there is a large number of seniors who are suffering as well. What many people fail to realize is that it’s very common for seniors to experience depression, loneliness, anxiety, and loss.

Here are a few reasons why mental health is often overlooked or underdiagnosed in older adults: 

1. It’s a subject not often talked about by older adults.

Many seniors don’t want to seem weak or dependent, so they don’t speak up about their feelings and needs. 

2. Misconceptions surrounding aging

Many people believe that depression is a normal part of aging. But it’s not, and we need to break this stigma. Mental health is important for everyone, especially older adults.

3. Confusing the symptoms

Older adults suffering from depression may experience dementia-like symptoms. It may be difficult for you to tell the two illnesses apart. Here are some tips that may help you distinguish depression from dementia.

4. Negative views on mental health

Negative attitudes about mental health are prominent among seniors. These attitudes are brought about by social stigmas and can influence public opinion.

For instance, an older adult may think people will view them as crazy if they speak up about their illness. This negative attitude derives from old concepts of institutionalization, a time when mental illness was something that wasn’t discussed openly or was frowned upon.

Additionally, older adults may rely on their spiritual beliefs and feel they are not being a “good Christian”  if they speak up as if their depression or anxiety is due to not praying enough. These stigmas can certainly cause an older adult to feel ashamed and prevent them from seeking help.

Start the conversation

There are several different ways to start the conversation about mental health with your senior loved ones. 

1. Understand that the brain is as important as the body

One easy way to start is by normalizing the topic of mental health and approach mental health care like physical health care. Understand that our mind’s wellbeing is just as important as physical ache or pain, so we should treat our mental health with the same precautions.  

2. Get vulnerable

One of the best ways to get an older loved one to open up about their mental health is by being honest and open with them about your feelings and the struggles you’ve faced. So, get vulnerable and initiate an open dialogue.

3. Get help

Talk to your primary care physician about local counseling services in your community. Many times, older adults are hesitant to seek professional help because of the costs involved. But a lot of insurance plans, including Medicare, cover a wide range of mental health services.  As a caregiver or a loved one, one of the biggest ways you can help is to speak with your loved one’s primary care provider regarding your concerns. 

Ask your loved one if you can accompany them to their appointments. That way you can be involved in finding solutions. If they are adamant on going alone, check in on them to ensure they are following through with their appointments and treatments. 

The takeaway

A huge reason why mental illnesses slip through the cracks in older individuals is that they don’t speak up about it. That’s why it’s important to ask questions while being sensitive to their emotions and feelings.

Older people were raised during a time when it was normal to keep quiet about their thoughts and feelings. Be sure to respect their culture and values in the process. Additionally, look for signs of depression. A drastic change in mood, energy level, and behavior can signal a problem.

If you are an older individual suffering from a mental health illness, please speak up. The biggest thing to remember is that, regardless of age, we are all humans. None of us are perfect and we all need help sometimes. Don’t be afraid to ask for it. Your well-being depends on it, and we are all rooting for you.

The underdiagnosis in seniors is a trending topic that is being addressed more and more each day. The more awareness we spread, the sooner we can see change. Let’s help our seniors receive the care they deserve.

Christian-Worstell

About the Author

Christian Worstell is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, NC.

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