More than 50 million Americans have a mental illness, including about 20 percent of people over the age of 55. Behavioral health challenges in older adults often go undiagnosed or untreated leading to a significant treatment gap. Various reasons contribute to this, including stigma, lack of awareness, and limited access to specialized care. Recognizing this gap and advocating for increased resources and support services for older adults is crucial. This population has unique and complex behavioral health needs, including depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and cognitive disorders including dementia. Loss of mobility and dealing with chronic medical needs can also significantly impact a person’s overall well-being and quality of life.
One of the most common mental health disorders affecting older adults is depression, which can have a detrimental impact on all aspects of a person’s life. Depression can be caused by a range of factors, including feeling dissatisfied with one’s life, feeling alone or disconnected, frequent mental distress, and external stressors. When someone is depressed, they may avoid being around others, have trouble sleeping, go to the doctor more often, or even self-medicate using drugs or alcohol. In addition, the prevalence of memory disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease (a form of dementia), increases with age with an estimated 5.6 million adults over age 65 diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Fortunately, proven interventions are available to help older adults struggling with depression and other mental illnesses. It is important for those seeking help to have access to specialists and trained experts in geriatrics and behavioral health. This includes understanding the physiological and psychological changes that occur with aging and how they can impact mental health. In addition, family members and caregivers play a crucial role and can benefit from education and assistance to manage the behavioral health challenges that may arise with their loved one and/or resident. A coordinated multifaceted approach can ensure comprehensive care and support.
Myth: Older adults with dementia cannot benefit from behavioral health interventions.
Truth: While dementia can present unique challenges, behavioral health interventions can still be beneficial for older adults with dementia. These interventions focus on managing behavioral symptoms, improving quality of life, and providing support to both the individual with dementia and their caregivers.
Myth: It is normal for older adults to feel lonely and isolated.
Truth: While feelings of social isolation and loneliness may be more common among older adults, they are not normal or healthy. Persistent loneliness and isolation can have negative effects on physical and mental health. Addressing these issues is essential for promoting overall well-being in geriatric populations.
Startling truth: Older adults have higher rates of suicide than any other age group. The suicide rate among older adults, especially men, is alarmingly high. Many people are unaware of this fact and may not recognize the signs of severe depression or suicidal ideation in older individuals. It is important to prioritize mental health screenings and support systems for older adults to prevent suicide.
If you have an older adult in your life, be sure to check on them to ensure that they are doing okay. If you suspect that anyone you know may be exhibiting signs of mental illness and is in crisis, get help right away. Emergency resources include Mental Health America’s Crisis Text Line by texting MHA to 741741 or your local 911 or 988 for the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. If you simply need to talk to someone, a warmline can help. Find one at warmline.org. Additionally, Voyages Behavioral Health offers specialized geriatric-psych programs as well as programs for all adults over the age of 18.