Stop The Stigma: Older Adults Hesitant To Pursue Mental Health Support

JOONDALUP, Australia — Mental health is discussed much more openly and frequently today than it was even just a few decades ago. As the years have passed, society has changed in many ways, and a much greater emphasis has been placed on mental health both in the workplace and at home. This shift in how society views mental health has led to various debates regarding whether people are really more willing to discuss topics like depression and anxiety, or if younger people just don’t have the same type of mental toughness as older generations.

While the answer to that generational conundrum probably lies somewhere in the middle, a new study conducted at Edith Cowan University in Australia has concluded that a significant percentage (over 40%) of older Australians already suffering from a chronic physical illness are very unlikely to seek out help regarding mental health problems, even if they are in dire need of such support. This is especially troubling, the study says, because this group of adults are especially likely to deal with conditions such as depression and isolation due to their physical ailments.

The research team, led by PhD candidate Claire Adams, looked into mental health help-seeking intentions among older Australians living with conditions like asthma, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. In all, 107 individuals over the age of 65 took part in the study, gathered from both independent living facilities and the local community.

Interestingly, due to their chronic physical ailments, these adults are usually in frequent contact with the health care system, doctors, nurses, etc — making it even more noteworthy that they largely ignore and underutilize the mental health services at their disposal.

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“This is concerning because this group of people are significantly more likely to experience anxiety and depression than older adults without chronic disease,” Adams says in a release.

In general, researchers noted that older adults hesitant to seek out mental health support were usually skeptical that any such treatment would help them. Furthermore, many of these adults actually felt like their family and friends would not be supportive if they pursued help, while a large portion falsely believed they are incapable of accessing mental health services.

Adams also pointed out that many mental health problems may be difficult for older adults to self-recognize due to overlap between mental health symptoms and symptoms stemming from physical ailments or possible side-effects from medication they’ve been prescribed.

“People living with respiratory disease who have difficulty breathing might assume that if their breathing is getting worse that’s because their chronic disease is getting worse, however it might actually be a symptom of anxiety,” Adams notes as an example.

However, the study also revealed that once an elderly adult pursues mental health support the first time, they are much more likely to return for subsequent treatments or therapy.

“What this suggests is that the use of mental health services is a positive experience and if we can get people to that first appointment then they are more likely to use them again if they need to. It’s a good reflection on our mental health system but also an indicator that after taking that first step uncertainty appears to be alleviated,” Adams says. “We need to help people living with chronic disease manage their disease and also live relatively happy lives. One way of doing that is to encourage them to seek help if they need it.”

The study is set to presented at the18th National Conference of Emerging Researchers in Aging in Sydney, Australia this November.

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