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Changing the Conversation about Mental Health with Seniors

By August 16, 2018September 8th, 2023Wellness
A caregiver comforts an older woman

It’s no surprise that for some of us, it’s easier to go to the doctor for a sore throat or an achy back than it is for a suffering spirit. It can be hard to admit when we feel down, even to those we’re closest to, and something about a visit to the doctor’s office can make us feel extra shy. But for seniors, that shy feeling might not be the only thing stopping them from accessing supportive mental health care.

The Mental Illness Stigma

Among older adults, negative attitudes about mental illness and mental health treatment are particularly strong. These attitudes — also called stigma — are not private opinions, but shared, public beliefs. To hold a stigma means to believe that others around us should hold them, too. For this reason, stigma has the power to influence the behavior of individuals. We’re all vulnerable to feeling judged by others around us, and that means that we will often work hard to avoid behaving in ways that are stigmatized.

Unfortunately, stigmas can only complicate efforts to help seniors lead happy, healthy lives, since it prevents them from talking about mental health issues. In fact, even though more than 20 percent of seniors suffer from a mental health issue, many say that they would never seek treatment.

As seniors face changes in their physical health and abilities, they may struggle with feelings of loss or isolation. Some adverse health events are associated with declines in mental health, too. For instance, did you know that studies show that after a heart attack, as many as 33 percent of patients may develop depression? That’s far more than in the general population.

Fighting Stigma with Normalization

Experts believe that the high level of stigmatization associated with mental health probably prevents half of seniors with conditions like depression and anxiety from seeking treatment. Furthermore, although people from all walks of life can be affected by a mental health stigma, African-American seniors and other older people of color may be more vulnerable to avoiding treatment due to stigma. Sometimes, stigmas surrounding mental health are so effective at dissuading individuals from seeking treatment that they won’t show signs that they’re suffering.

Luckily, stigmas are reversible. Public opinion shifts — that’s why young adults report much less stringent attitudes about mental illness than older adults do — and exposure to new social norms can relax how stigmas affect our attitudes. If you have seniors in your life, here are some ways you can work toward a healthy dialogue about mental health:

  • Understand that mental health care is health care. The first and best thing you can do to help older adults access the mental health treatment they need is to think through your own attitudes about mental health. Our minds are as important to our health as our bodies are, and we all deserve care that helps us be our best selves.
  • Talk openly about your own feelings. “Fine” and “pretty good” don’t have to be the end of the conversation on how you’re doing. Sharing that you have ups and downs, or mentioning ways that you try to practice good mental health care for yourself, can help seniors get used to new ways of thinking about the importance of maintaining a healthy mind.
  • Ask for support from health care providers and others. Whether they’re volunteers at a local senior center or the head cardiologist at a major teaching hospital, people who work with older adults often have practice talking about mental health care. Ask about screening for conditions like depression. Primary care physicians can provide resources on how to talk to older adults about maintaining a healthy mind, and they can always help broach the topic.
  • Mention any concerns you may have. Consider these tips for recognizing social isolation and depression in the elderly. If you notice changes in behavior in an older adult, like reduced appetite or increased sleep, don’t be afraid to ask how they’re doing. They may be willing to open up, especially if you avoid using phrases like “mental illness” and focus instead on listening to how they describe their experiences. It may feel disrespectful to pry, but ignoring symptoms won’t make them go away. With your help, seniors can change the conversation about mental illness.


Mara Hughes

I work in Medicare Marketing at Independence and blog about navigating life with chronic illness and other issues relevant to caregivers and health care consumers of all ages.