Three Ways Mental Health Professionals Can Address Mental Illness in Aging Adults

By on October 3, 2017

By Dr. Eric Beeson, licensed professional counselor and core faculty member with [email protected], the online masters in counseling offered by The Family Institute at Northwestern University

When people think of retirement, a life of carefree days may come to mind, but for some of those who are currently in retirement, it can be anything but. Transitioning from fast-paced careers to slower lifestyles can lead to unexpected mental health challenges, and aging adults are left wondering, “What’s next for me?”

Many factors contribute to the deterioration of mental well-being for aging adults: isolation, medical problems and loss of loved ones. The quality of life can also be impaired as aging adults leave enriching careers that once provided a sense of value and purpose, as well as worry about the health of their financial future.

This group of aging adults continues to grow. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that almost one in five U.S. residents will be 65 years or older by 2030. As Americans live longer, mental health professionals will see a spike in mental health-related illnesses in aging adults. The industry needs to prepare to take care of this population. 

Here are three ways health professionals can support the mental well-being of aging adults:

  • Eliminate the stigma that surrounds mental illness at an older age. According to 2015 data from Mental Health America, about 56 percent of adults with mental illness did not receive treatment. Why? This is likely the result of not realizing there is an issue or being embarrassed to admit there is a problem. How do we eliminate stigma to ensure this 56 percent gets all the help they need? Speaking up about a potential mental health issue is the first step in addressing it. Many adults think mental illness is a natural part of aging, and while it can be related to aging, any illness should be looked at independently to ensure proper treatment is received. The children of these aging adults should also encourage their elders to seek treatment if necessary. How do you know if a parent is depressed? Take the time to listen to how they feel and support them in expressing their emotions.
  • Take an integrated approach to promote mental well-being. Mental health has a direct correlation to behavioral and physical health, it makes sense to take a holistic approach. Many doctors are already doing so by including mental health screenings with traditional physicals and recommending practices like mindfulness. Primary care physicians can leverage their existing relationships with patients to offer suggestions to improve their mental health. When patients hear suggestions from trusted doctors, they’re more likely to take action. Without this integrated approach, patients have to independently reach out to mental health professionals, which many are unlikely to do.
  • Advocate politically to ensure professionals are given the tools to provide the best treatment options possible. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 100 million Americans live in areas with a shortage of mental health care workers and the National Center for Health Workforce Analysis predicts that the demand created by the increasing aging population could lead to a shortage of workers. Professionals should take action to prepare for this increased number of patients by expanding their practices to cover Medicare patients. As adults age, many of their health coverages will transition to Medicare, and if health professionals do not accept it, patients will have to look elsewhere for assistance. To advocate for changes to the current Medicare law, professionals should support the American Mental Health Counselors Association as they argue for the “Mental Health Access Improvement Act of 2017,” which, if passed, would result in positive changes for the professionals.

Mental health professionals need to continue to innovate and challenge themselves to provide the best care for their patients. By eliminating the stigma around mental health issues among the aging population, taking an integrated approach to mental health and advocating for positive changes within the Medicare system, health professionals can do their part ensure the aging population is taken care of properly. 

To learn more about how mental health professionals are supporting the aging population, visit here.

For more information on Dr. Eric Beeson, visit here or here.

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Three Ways Mental Health Professionals Can Address Mental Illness in Aging Adults