It’s estimated that 20% of people aged 55 years or older experience some type of mental health issue - the most common are anxiety and depression. Indeed, more common later-life events such as chronic medical disorders, loss of friends and loved ones, and the inability to take part in once-cherished activities can take a heavy toll on a person’s emotional well-being. But mental health problems are not a “normal” part of aging and should be identified and treated, not tossed off as unavoidable. In this article, we look at the facts about mental health issues in older adults and what can be done to address them.
Facts about mental health and aging
Mental health problems are a risk for older adults, regardless of history. While some adults go through life managing a chronic mental illness, mental health problems can also suddenly appear late in life. Changing bodies and chemistry, changes in family and friendships, and changes in living situations – all have an effect on mental health and need to be considered in treatment. Some sobering facts about older adults and mental health include:
- Adults 85 and over have the highest suicide rate; those aged 75 to 84 have the second highest.
- 75% of those who commit suicide have visited a primary care physician within a month of their suicide.
- It's estimated that only 50% of older adults who discuss specific mental health problems with a physician receive the right treatment.
- Up to 63% of older adults with a mental disorder do not receive the services they need.
On the good news side, research also shows that if older adults are diagnosed with a mental health disorder, and are able to access services, then 80% will recover or receive the tools to live successfully with their disorder.
Is there such a thing as psychological aging?
Recent studies have shown that how old we “perceive” ourselves contributes to our level of well-being also. This is known as psychological aging. Essentially, our ‘subjective age’ (how young or old we perceive ourselves to be regardless of physical age) has a significant effect on our health decisions - the idea being that if we ‘feel’ younger than we are, we will make more healthy lifestyle decisions - including decisions that may help our mental health.
Depression is common in older adults - what we can all do to help
One of the most common mental illnesses affecting older adults is depression. Depression can have a negative “halo effect” on the health of older adults in many ways. According to the American Psychological Association, depression “can lead to eating habits that result in obesity or, conversely, can cause a significant loss of appetite and diminished energy levels, sometimes resulting in a condition known as geriatric anorexia; it can also cause higher rates of insomnia and memory loss, and longer-than-normal reaction times'' - making driving, cooking, or self-medicating more dangerous than normal. However most older adults see an improvement in their symptoms when treated with anti-depression drugs, therapy, or a combination of both - so the key is to get help as early as possible.
Watch for these warning signs in yourself or loved ones that may signal a mental health issue:
- Noticeable changes in mood, energy level, or appetite
- Feeling flat or having trouble feeling positive emotions
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
- Difficulty concentrating, feeling restless, or on edge
- Increased worry or feeling stressed
- Anger, irritability, or aggressiveness
- Ongoing headaches, digestive issues, or pain
- A need for alcohol or drugs
- Sadness or hopelessness
- Suicidal thoughts
And experts say to be tactful when talking to an older loved one about potential warning signs. An older person with fragile self-esteem may interpret well-intentioned encouragement as further proof of their declining condition. Some may even resent attempts at intervention. And because older people tend to be less amenable to lifestyle changes, they may be reluctant to adopt new, healthier habits. A trained mental health specialist who understands aging issues can help friends and family members craft positive approaches for talking about sensitive issues, and can help tailor an individualized therapeutic strategy to combat depression.
If you or a loved one need help with mental health issues, consider contacting a qualified telebehavioral health professional
If you’re a client, request an appointment online or call our live support for assistance in scheduling care today. Our mental health professionals are trained in multiple mental health disorders and have experience treating them via online appointments - from the convenience and privacy of your home or wherever works for you. If you’re a behavioral health provider looking to join our network, see all the benefits and learn how to apply here.
CDC: The State of Mental Health and Aging in America
National Institute of Mental Health: Older Adults and Mental Health
American Psychological Association: Aging and Depression