At least one in four older adults experiences some mental disorder that often goes unrecognized. Depression is the most common mental health problem in seniors, but anxiety is also very prevalent among this population, affecting as many as 10%-20% of older people. The group reporting the highest suicide rate are seniors aged 85 and above. Sadly, more than two-thirds of the elderly persons suffering from mental health problems do not get access to the support and treatment they need. A severe shortage of mental health specialists, especially those trained in treating the elderly, is a further deterrent for getting adequate care.

Black and Latinx adults often experience racism and a lack of respect in the health system, which can deter them from seeking mental health care. Previous research has also shown that a shortage of culturally competent providers and lack of coverage (Black people are more likely to be uninsured than white people) are reasons why Black and Latinx people may have untreated mental health issues. Research has also shown that Black and Latinx Americans are more likely than their white counterparts to rely on religious institutions to help with mental health issues.

Many older Black and Latinx patients say they don’t trust the mental health care system both for historical reasons and because of their own experiences. Lack of trust along with stigma can mean many people forgo care.

Know why your mental health and well-being matters

Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood. It has a tremendous impact on our overall health and well-being. Our mental health includes our thoughts, emotions, feelings and moods. It influences our choices, actions and how we relate to others. Good mental health can help us cope with stress, succeed in our professional lives, more effectively recover from difficult situations and add value to our community and be our best self.

Common mental health problems among seniors

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 20% of adults over the age of 50 experience issues with their mental health. Many of us have come across seasoned adults suffering from mental health illnesses, even though they may try as much as possible to keep their challenges private.

It’s important for all of us to know how to spot the signs of mental illness in the elderly so we can help them get the support they need to relieve their symptoms and improve their quality of life. The benefits of seeking professional help and treatment can make a positive difference in overall health and quality of life.

Depression: Many seniors with depression don’t experience sadness as a primary symptom. The effects of their depression may be seen mostly in physical problems instead. For example, issues like chronic headaches, pain without an obvious cause, unintended weight loss, or persistently low energy or motivation may indicate that they’re depressed. Even though the rate of depression in the African American community is less than their counterparts, the condition may persist for a longer duration. Sadness, low mood, lethargy, or other depressive symptoms that last 2 weeks or more could point to the serious mood disorder. In older people with depression, loneliness often plays a big role.

Dementia: Dementia tends to be characterized by slow mental decline, confusion, noticeably impaired motor skills, and trouble with short-term memory. Folks with dementia also often remain unaware of (or indifferent to) their memory problems.

Delirium: Delirium is a type of confusion that happens when the combined strain of illnesses, environmental circumstances or other risk factors disrupts your brain function. It’s more common in adults over 65. This condition is serious and can cause long-term or permanent problems, especially with delays in treatment. However, it’s also often preventable. Helping people with mobility and activity or removing tethers can help delirium get better.

Bipolar disorder: Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness that causes unusual shifts in mood, ranging from extreme highs (mania or “manic” episodes) to lows (depression or “depressive” episodes). A person who has bipolar disorder also experiences changes in their energy levels, thinking, behavior, and sleep. During bipolar mood episodes, it is difficult to carry out day-to-day tasks.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD is one of the most common mental health conditions, and it can be especially difficult for older adults. PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a psychiatric condition that people may experience after going through or witnessing a traumatic event. Examples of experiences that can lead to PTSD include a natural disaster, war, a serious accident, or an assault. A closely-related condition called complex PTSD can be caused by prolonged, stressful life events, such as homelessness, childhood neglect, or living in an area affected by war.

Seniors are also at risk of developing PTSD after a serious fall. According to a study published in the General Hospital Psychiatry journal, 27 out of 100 people over the age of 65 who were admitted to the hospital after falling had PTSD symptoms.

Ways to boost mental health and well-being 

Exercise does a mind good: Exercise produces endorphins (the “feel good” hormone), which act as a stress reliever and leaves you feeling happy and satisfied. In addition, exercise has been linked to improving sleep, which is especially important for older adults who often suffer from insomnia and disrupted sleep patterns.

Socialization is a pick-me-up: Research suggests that seniors benefit from supportive social connections and close personal relationships. Older folks should be encouraged to actively participate in their communities and in society at large. Creating social connections can help improve memory retention and protect the brain from degenerative diseases. Social interactions can motivate seniors to continue learning, using their minds to prevent mental decline.

Family ties bind: Close family connections help seniors feel fulfilled, comforted and loved. This can all lead to a major improvement in mental health. Since seniors connected with family are more likely to have people that care about them around, they’re more likely to get help when they need it.

Pets can help heal: Pets can also have an astounding effect on symptoms of depression and feelings of loneliness. Research has shown that pet ownership can provide important forms of social and emotional support for older adults that can reduce distress, loneliness and improve overall quality of life. One study found that strong attachment to a pet was associated with less depression among older adults.

Games engage: Games that engage senior minds can help maintain cognitive abilities and slow the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia. The benefits of play often makes a noticeable difference in a short period of time. Games are also a great way to connect and share, which is vital for those suffering from the effects of social isolation, which is a problem all too common among older adults.

Games that engage senior minds can help maintain cognitive abilities and slow the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia. The benefits of play often make a noticeable difference in a short period of time. Games are also a great way to connect and share, which is vital for those suffering from the effects of social isolation, which is a problem all too common among older adults.

Hobbies are helpful: As friends and family pass away and some older adults’ ability to get out and about declines due to health concerns, aging can become a lonely business. Having an outlet to express themselves is helpful to alleviate seniors’ loneliness. This self expression can be bolstered by several kinds of hobbies. We’ve had evidence that learning new hobbies may be instrumental in staving off dementia symptoms in seniors. The authors of one study published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias noted, “engaging in cognitively stimulating leisure activities in late life may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and overall dementia” The Pittsburgh-based researchers found that seniors who spent at least one hour per day on a hobby were less likely to develop dementia later on.

Does someone you know suffer from depression and has attempted suicide? Please reach out to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) offering 24/7 call, text and chat access to trained crisis counselors who can help people experiencing suicidal, substance use, and/or mental health crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress.