February 21, 2019
For some people, it can be easier to make a doctor’s appointment for a sore throat than it is for a suffering spirit. When it comes to mental health, shyness prevents many people from opening up and talking to others about their emotional well-being. But for seniors, there’s a bigger issue at play that can stop them from accessing the supportive mental health care they need.
Among older adults, negative attitudes about mental illness and mental health treatment are particularly strong. These attitudes — also called stigma — are not private opinions, but shared, public beliefs. To hold a stigma means to believe that others around us should hold them, too. For this reason, stigma has the power to influence the behavior of individuals. We’re all vulnerable to feeling judged by others around us, and that means that we will often work hard to avoid behaving in ways that are stigmatized.
Unfortunately, stigmas can only complicate efforts to help seniors lead happy, healthy lives, since it prevents them from talking about mental health issues. In fact, even though more than 20 percent of seniors suffer from a mental health issue, many say that they would never seek treatment.
As seniors face changes in their physical health and abilities, they may struggle with feelings of loss or isolation. Some adverse health events are associated with declines in mental health, too. For instance, did you know that studies show that after a heart attack, as many as 33 percent of patients may develop depression? That’s far more than in the general population.
Experts believe that the high level of stigmatization associated with mental health probably prevents half of seniors with conditions like depression and anxiety from seeking treatment. Furthermore, although people from all walks of life can be affected by mental health stigma, African-American seniors and other older people of color may be more likely to avoid treatment due to stigma. Sometimes, stigmas surrounding mental health are so effective at dissuading individuals from seeking treatment that they won’t show signs that they’re suffering.
Luckily, stigmas are reversible. Public opinion shifts — that’s why young adults report much less stringent attitudes about mental illness than older adults do — and exposure to new social norms can relax how stigmas affect our attitudes. If you have seniors in your life, here are some ways you can work toward a healthy dialogue about mental health:
This article was originally published on IBX Insights.
I work in Medicare Marketing at Independence and blog about navigating life with chronic illness and other issues relevant to caregivers and health care consumers of all ages.