In the United States’ rapidly aging population, physical and mental health often affect each other, one exacerbating the other. Mental health problems such as dementia in older adults are recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “public health issues.” Older adults affected by anything ranging from depression to schizophrenia may not realize what the cause of their affliction is, as they may not have had as comprehensive of an education on mental health. Additionally, mental health issues frequently go undiagnosed, confused for physical ailments or brushed off as mere side effects of aging.
Feelings of loneliness and hopelessness in older adults have expectedly increased during the pandemic, as many have lost relatives and friends due to illness and are largely unable to interact with others in meaningful ways. Sudden suspension from social interaction is debilitating at any age but is shown to especially harm the oldest populations, those who are already most vulnerable to physical and mental health detriments.
Mental health treatment, like physical health treatment, is expensive. Geographically and economically, this treatment can be hard to attain for underserved communities, which oftentimes happen to be communities of color. This disparity is shown in trends across the nation, and is but one hurdle that must be straddled as mental health research develops. There is no easy solution to this problem. The CDC recognizes that we must “identify risk factors, increase awareness about mental disorders… remove the stigma associated with mental disorders… eliminate health disparities, and improve access to mental health services” (CDC). Breaking this down into its parts can simplify what seems to be an intangible problem into manageable steps of a solution.
Firstly, we must identify “risk factors.” Risk factors include living alone, or a history of hereditary mental illness, but in the modern era our lives are so complex and nuanced that there are a multitude of risk factors that should be considered. The CDC then suggests increasing awareness about mental disorders, which has been shown to be effective. For example, studies indicate that discussions about an individual’s suicidal thoughts tend to lower suicide rates. The National Institute of Mental Health states that “asking someone directly, ‘Are you thinking of killing yourself,’ can be the best way to identify someone at risk for suicide,” and after identifying this risk, further steps can be taken to help (NIMH). Destigmatizing mental health is a tiring process, but it is a necessary one: starting conversations with family members and peers about mental health fosters an open and supportive environment. However, it is important to simultaneously recognize that the topic of mental health is a more recent one, and ingrained stigma is inevitable. By increasing awareness on the national level and possibly implementing programs that educate students about mental health in their formative years, the stigma can be fought. “Health disparities,” or differences in access and quality of healthcare, often stem from amounts of privilege (or lack thereof) such as socioeconomic standing. To eliminate such disparities requires fundamental change in the American governmental system and in society itself. Finally, improving “access to mental health services” ties back to creating a more equitable resource distribution system, and as more energy and funding is invested in this field, mental health services will become more available for every citizen. The development and growth of hotlines such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in recent years is but an example of how in the ever-digitized world, health services adapt and overcome.
“Mental Health of Older Adults.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-of-older-adults.
“Suicide in America: Frequently Asked Questions.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/suicide-faq/index.shtml.
“The State of Mental Health and Aging in America.” Center for Disease Control, 2008, www.cdc.gov/aging/pdf/mental_health.pdf.