Recently the news has brought mental health issues into the spotlight. The death of a well-known entertainer, a former child star and the deaths by suicide of three sailors in one week on an aircraft carrier have made it clear that no one is immune from the dangers of mental illness. This is perhaps even more true for one of the largest segments of our population – adults over the age of 65. Major life changes such as the loss of a spouse and/or contemporaries, moves to senior living facilities and changes in health and wellness can also lead to changes in mental health status. In addition, seniors may struggle with feelings of isolation, age-related dementia and sleep disorders. So, how can healthcare providers be ready to address mental health issues with this patient population?
The incidence of mental illness in the senior population appears roughly equal to that of the rest of the adult population – roughly 20%. In addition, people over the age of 85 have the highest suicide rate of any age group and the older population is more likely to be suffering from complex and chronic health conditions that may serve to exacerbate mental health issues. This, combined with the safety issues associated with falls among older adults and growing concerns over abuse can create a situation where mental health issues are more prevalent.
It is estimated that as many as two-thirds of older adults suffering with a mental illness do not receive treatment. While the factors that contribute to mental illness in this population may be somewhat different than their younger cohorts, the barriers to treatment are strikingly similar.
In addition to some of the expected barriers to mental health treatment, there are some additional hurdles that may be experienced by seniors. They may experience transportation issues due to the loss of driving privileges that may make attending therapeutic appointments challenging for them. In addition, there is a somewhat common belief that symptoms such as depression and anxiety are common in older people and that treatment may be futile. The cost of treatment and concerns over medications are also barriers to treatment in the senior population. In addition, this generation may stigmatize mental illness which may also preclude them from seeking help.
While local, state and national policy makers should be encouraged to create policy that addresses the issue, providers are really the front line when it comes to recognizing and treating mental illness in seniors. Primary care providers should be trained to recognize the signs of mental illness in this population and understand the most effective interventions. Providers need updated information about the need for, and effectiveness of therapeutic interventions for older adults with anxiety and depression and other mental health issues.
Providers can help by:
HealthStream has tools that can help your organization increase staff competence in this area while improving patient outcomes and staff well-being. These tools can help develop staff to recognize signs of mental illness, accurately identify areas of concern by means of training that is engaging and effective.
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