Mental Health & Older Adults

May 15, 2014

Good evening.  I’m Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Missoula and Ravalli Counties.  Because May is Mental Health Month, tonight I want to talk about the importance of maintaining good mental health and seeking appropriate treatment if your mental health is suffering, especially as this subject pertains to older adults.

Not a day passes that we don’t read or hear about the importance of a healthy lifestyle.  Much emphasis is put on regular exercise, eating right and getting a good night’s sleep to keep our bodies as healthy as possible, especially as we age.  However, good health involves more than only caring for the body.

A healthy mind is equally important--in fact, our mental health is integral to our overall health. Far too many Americans fail to incorporate this principal component into their health choices.  Yet overall health and wellness are not possible without it.

If you were to ask your friend, spouse or neighbor to define mental health, they may respond that it is a “state of mind,” “being content with life” or “feeling good about yourself.”  Simply put, mental health is the ability to cope with daily life and the challenges it brings.

When a person has good mental health, they deal better with what comes their way.  By contrast, poor mental health--such as feeling overwhelmed by high levels of stress--can make even day-to-day life difficult.  This can also lead to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.  Most people feel sad, blue, unhappy, miserable or down in the dumps for short periods from time to time.  But true clinical depression is an illness, a mood disorder in which feelings of sadness, loss, anger or frustration interfere with daily life for weeks or longer.

While I believe our society has come a long way toward understanding mental health and mental illness, neither has the same mainstream awareness level as other medical issues like diabetes, heart disease or cancer.  Most people still do not recognize the importance of good mental health, let alone understand mental illness, especially as it pertains to themselves. We may talk about being stressed or overwhelmed, but do we recognize the impact this has on our overall health?  Many older adults still feel a stigma associated with the idea that they may be suffering from clinical depression, so they say little to others including their health care provider. Having this perception only deprives a person of living life to its fullest.

As we grow older we face different challenges. The triggers for depression are many: social isolation and loneliness, physical decline, effects of medication, major surgery, death of a spouse or lifelong friend.  A recent study posted on Medline Plus looked into what may lead older adults to consider suicide.  Most research has suggested that depression is the major cause.  However, this study suggests the main factors that may trigger thoughts of death and suicide among older adults are health, money and family problems. Research also suggests that predispositions for mental illness, including depression and anxiety, may be genetically based. 

Despite all of this, the best news is that mental illnesses like depression and anxiety are very treatable if you seek help.  Start by being honest with your medical provider about how you feel.  Delve into family history to see if there are indications that other family members may have had mental health issues, whether diagnosed or not. Your medical provider may prescribe medication, often in combination with talk therapy.

But not everyone is willing to acknowledge their symptoms, take medication, or continue a course of treatment if the first attempt didn’t work as they wanted. Options for dealing with mental illness do not necessarily guarantee a quick fix or that a current fix will be effective for the rest of your life.  Individuals’ responses to different treatment protocols vary widely and positive results can take time. Bear in mind that achieving or restoring good mental health is a journey, one in which you need a trusted and knowledgeable medical provider who is committed to working with you along the way.  The process may be temporary or lifelong, but it starts with acknowledging that you want to feel better. 

Everyone deserves good mental health. Feeling down in the dumps over a long period of time does not need to be a normal part of aging. Let’s remind ourselves during Mental Health Month that a healthy mind is achievable at any age and, with the treatment options available today, more attainable than ever before.

This is Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services and as always, thanks for listening.