Older Adult Mental Health
April 24, 2023

Mental Health Awareness Month: Resources to Help Older Adults

Mental Health Awareness Month: Resources to Help Older Adults

By Colleen Scott, NYSOFA Advocacy Specialist

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Given the unprecedented impact of the pandemic, mental health challenges are more prevalent than ever before. Meanwhile, older adults have unique life circumstances that can affect mental health, such as the loss of a spouse/partner or peers, the emotional challenge of coping with illness, or feeling adrift in retirement.

According to the CDC, prior to the pandemic, 20% of those over age 55 were dealing with some form of mental illness. The most common forms are depression, severe cognitive impairment, and mood disorders (such as bipolar disorder). Additionally, men over the age of 85 have the highest rate of suicide of any group.

Depression, a type of mood disorder, is the most prevalent mental health problem among older adults. The presence of depressive disorders often adversely affects the course and complicates the treatment of other chronic diseases. Older adults with depression visit the doctor and emergency room more often, use more medication, incur higher outpatient charges, and stay longer in the hospital.

Risk factors for late-onset depression included widowhood, physical illness, low educational attainment (less than high school), impaired functional status, and heavy alcohol consumption.

Warning Signs Someone Needs Help

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the following are warning signs that someone is in need of help:

  • Noticeable changes in mood, energy level, or appetite
  • Feeling flat or having trouble feeling positive emotions
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Difficulty concentrating, feeling restless, or on edge
  • Increased worry or feeling stressed
  • Anger, irritability, or aggressiveness
  • Ongoing headaches, digestive issues, or pain
  • A need for alcohol or drugs
  • Sadness or hopelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Engaging in high-risk activities
  • Obsessive thinking or compulsive behavior
  • Thoughts or behaviors that interfere with work, family, or social life
  • Unusual thinking or behaviors that concern other people

Mental Health and Disparities

Research indicates that individuals who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are less likely to have access to mental health services, seek out services, and receive needed care than people who are White. BIPOC are also more likely to receive poor quality of care and end services prematurely.

BIPOC are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, as the system overlays race with criminality. According to SAMSHA, it is estimated that 18% of the general population has a mental illness. However, an estimated 44% of those in jail and 37% of those in prison have a mental illness.

Regarding racial disparities in misdiagnosis, Black men, for example, are overdiagnosed with schizophrenia (four times more likely than White men to be diagnosed), while underdiagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder and mood disorders.

Hispanic adults age 50 or older reported more current depression than White non-Hispanic adults, Black non-Hispanic adults, or other non-Hispanic adults.

BIPOC people are less represented in the workforce treating mental illness. According to the American Psychology Association, in 2015, 86% of psychologists in the U.S. workforce were White, 5% were Asian, 5% were Hispanic, 4% were Black/African-American and 1% were multiracial or from other racial/ethnic groups. This is less diverse than the U.S. population as a whole, which is 62 percent White and 38 percent racial/ethnic minority.