As we grow older, we are more likely to be living with chronic health conditions. Heart disease, arthritis, vision and hearing loss, diabetes, and many other illnesses all can take a toll on our quality of life, so it’s not surprising that many seniors who are living with health challenges are also dealing with depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts.
But these mental health conditions also can occur independently. They are more common with age—and it’s important to remember that, in turn, they can worsen our physical health problems. Depression and anxiety make it harder to get enough exercise, eat a healthy diet, and manage our medical routine and medications.
Yet many seniors hesitate to ask for help from a mental health professional. Recent research from Edith Cowan University in Australia sought to discover why. According to the 2019 study, conducted by psychologist Claire Adams, there are three main reasons that seniors are often reluctant to access mental health support services: they are skeptical that these services will help them; they don’t think their family and friends would be positive about it; and they think they are unable to access such services.
It can be tricky to identify mental health problems when a senior is living with chronic disease. “There are overlaps between mental health symptoms, physical health symptoms, and the side-effects of medications,” says Adams. She offers as an example: “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.”
One positive finding from this research is that after the first visit to a mental health professional, senior patients are likely to go back. “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,” said Adams.
Are you or an older loved one thinking about seeing a mental health professional? The National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) offers suggestions for getting started:
Begin With Your Primary Care Provider
As you’re discussing your diabetes, heart disease, or other condition, take the opportunity to tell the doctor if you’re feeling anxiety or depression, or if you’ve experienced thoughts of suicide. Many doctors routinely ask senior patients about mental health symptoms these days; don’t brush off the question. Your doctor can refer you to a mental health specialist.
Prepare Ahead for Your First Visit
Make a list of questions and concerns. Prepare a list of your medications (including prescription and nonprescription drugs, herbal remedies, and supplements). Review your family history of mental disorders.
Consider Bringing a Friend or Relative
A trusted companion can provide support, help you remember everything the healthcare provider says, and, with your permission, offer input.
Older patients often keep quiet about mental illness. But providers can only help you get better if they have a clear idea of what you’re going through. They will want to know about stresses and changes in your life circumstances, and whether you are experiencing symptoms.
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
- Decreased energy or fatigue
- Moving or talking more slowly
- Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Appetite or weight changes (or both)
- Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment
Ask Questions About Your Diagnosis and Treatment
Be sure you understand everything, and express any concerns you might have. Remember that you can get a second opinion from a different provider. The NIMH says, “It’s important to remember that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ treatment. You may need to try a few different health care providers and several different treatments, or a combination of treatments, before finding one that works best for you.”
Our physical and mental health are intricately intertwined. Seeking help for depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions supports our physical health as well.