May is Mental Health Awareness Month. And now, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more vital than ever to reduce the stigma around mental health struggles.
For the millions of Americans already living with mental illness, the uncertainty of the pandemic may have caused added stress. And the number of people experiencing symptoms is on the rise. According to recent studies, reports of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased significantly between April and June 2020 compared to the previous year.
These issues can be even worse for older adults, especially those who are isolated or who lack social support.
Keep reading for more information on mental health issues in older adults and what you can do to help.
What is Mental Health Awareness Month?
Since 1949, Mental Health America has been observing May as Mental Health Month. The event helps spread the word about mental health through media campaigns, awareness activities, local events, and screenings.e
This year, the theme is “Tools 2 Thrive,” and the goal is to provide practical tools that everyone can use to improve their mental health and increase their resiliency in any situation. Topics include:
- Adapting after trauma and stress
- Dealing with anger and frustration
- Getting out of thinking traps
- Processing big changes
- Taking time for yourself
- Radical acceptance
Mental Health and Older Adults
The American population is rapidly aging: approximately 75 million people will be over 65 by 2030. And according to a 2012 study from the Institute of Medicine, about one in five older adults have a mental illness, substance abuse condition, or both.
It is likely that someone close to you – a friend, family member, or neighbor – is personally impacted or will be in the future.
Here are some ways you can help:
Identify Risk Factors
Mental health illness can worsen an older adult’s physical health and overall well-being, but conditions such as anxiety and depression are often unrecognized and undertreated. It’s vital to be aware of issues that may leave your older loved ones vulnerable so you can intervene early.
According to the MHA, common risk factors include:
- Chronic medical conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD], cardiovascular disease, thyroid disease, and diabetes
- Overall feelings of poor health
- Sleep disturbance
- Side effects of medications (i.e., steroids, antidepressants, stimulants, bronchodilators/inhalers, etc.)
- Alcohol or prescription medication misuse or abuse
- Physical limitations in daily activities
- Stressful life events
- Adverse or difficult events in childhood
Know the Signs and Symptoms
Mental health illness can be challenging to recognize in older adults because they may show different signs than younger people. It’s important to know what to look for so you can help. Some common indicators include:
- Issues with confusion, concentration, or decision-making. Age-related memory loss is expected, to an extent. However, if an older adult starts to repeat themselves several times a day, states the same thing repeatedly, or has trouble concentrating for extended periods, it may be an issue.
- Periods of sadness lasting more than two weeks. Everyone feels sad from time to time. If these feelings persist, though, it is wise to see a doctor.
- Decrease in appetite or unexplained weight loss. Depression and anxiety can both play a role in appetite.
- Changes in appearance. A marked decline in personal grooming can be a sign of several different mental health issues.
- Social withdrawal. When people struggle with mental health, it can be challenging to be functional in relationships. Keep mindful of loved ones who struggle with social isolation and do your part to try to connect.
- Unexplainable physical health problems. Mental health can affect physical health. Headaches, body aches, and feelings of general malaise are common in those with emotional health issues.
- Unexplained fatigue. Mental illness can impact normal sleep patterns, leading to fatigue, lethargy, and brain fog during the day.
Get Help When Necessary
If you suspect that your older loved one or friend is suffering from mental illness, don’t let them struggle alone. Help them contact their health care provider to evaluate their condition and see what treatments are available.