Mental Health Awareness for Seniors
October was Mental Health Awareness Month, but one month dedicated to this cause is not enough. According to the National Academy of Medicine, 15-25% of seniors in America—ages 65 and over—live with at least one mental health condition such as depression, and are severely under-diagnosed. There are three important steps to keep yourself and your loved ones from falling into this pattern.
It is important to identify symptoms before it is too late. If a loved one has inexplicable aches, experiences sudden changes in weight, appetite, sleeping patterns, or energy levels, feels a loss of self-worth, or has issues with their memory, they may be depressed. Contrary to popular belief, the depressed person may not feel ‘sad’ at all. Seniors specifically are at higher risk for depression than other demographics because aging includes several sobering and saddening realities, such as:
- Feeling a lack of purpose, possibly from retirement
- Isolation, especially when accompanied with the loss of independence—such as having health problems that prevent driving
- Health problems, especially chronic problems that seem to have no solution
- Loss, and the acute grief when a spouse or family member passes away
Once you have identified the symptoms of depression, the next step is getting help. Seniors are less likely to utilize mental health services than any other demographic. In large part, this is due to the stigma that is still associated with mental health to this day—and was much worse several decades ago. Hence, older generations are not likely to think of depression or other mental health conditions as “valid” illnesses; they may be perceived as character flaws or something one can just “get over”.
To help combat this mentality, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has started a StigmaFree campaign to eradicate the stigmas associated with mental illnesses that harm 1 in 5 Americans with mental health conditions. By taking the StigmaFree pledge, you and your loved ones can make an effort to discuss your own mental illnesses without judgment.
Finally, the third step in dealing with mental illness is finding the right provider of mental health services. Of course, this requires several practical considerations such as finances. There are government programs you may be able to take advantage of, such as Medical for California residents. However, beyond that, it is important to look for providers that will both understand the effects of overlapping medications on mental health and will make you feel welcome in their office.
Mental health can be a challenging subject, especially when it comes to older populations who were taught to never discuss such issues. Mental illness is no less real or debilitating than any physical illness, so dismissing mental health concerns altogether causes our loved ones to fade into the shadows. Mental health month is just past, but we should all continue to make the effort to get past our preconceived stigmas and shed some light on mental illness in an atmosphere of openness and empathy.
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