By Dr. Donald Klasing, Medical Director, Unity Psychiatric Care at Huntsville
Living through this pandemic has caused a lot of stress, anxiety and grief, which has led to a spike in mental health problems. Yet, researchers have discovered something surprising: Older adults generally have had fewer mental health struggles during this period than younger people. Though it’s not clear why seniors tended to be more resilient than other age groups, the researchers suggest that wisdom and good coping skills may help aging adults weather tough times.
While this is good news for the senior population, it’s only part of the story. While older people as a group fared well during the year of the pandemic, individual seniors have experienced mental health struggles as a result of social isolation, fear of illness and loss of friends and family. Given these stressors, this is not unexpected.
We know that lived experiences can trigger symptoms of depression, anxiety and other disorders. Even experiences that may not be perceived as traumatic can impact mental health. Changes associated with growing old, for instance, can undermine one’s emotional well-being.
Surprising Mental Illness Triggers
The World Health Organization and the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation has identified nine of the most common potential triggers for mental illness in older people.
- Alcohol or substance abuse
- Dementia-causing illness (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease)
- Illness or loss of a loved one
- Long-term illness (e.g., cancer or heart disease)
- Chronic pain
- Medication interactions
- Physical disability or loss of mobility
- Physical illnesses that can affect emotion, memory and thought
- Poor diet or malnutrition
If some of these triggers surprise you, you’re not alone. At Unity Psychiatric Care, our diagnostic process often uncovers hidden causes for patients’ psychiatric symptoms that were unrecognized by them and their families. Lack of awareness may keep people from getting the help they need.
Help Is Always Available
The two most diagnosed mental disorders in seniors are depression and dementia. Symptoms of both can be easy for individuals to ignore or mistakenly attribute to some other cause. Fortunately, the medical community is becoming more adept at identifying and treating older people struggling with mood disorders or behavioral changes linked to dementia.
Treatment for mental illness varies widely. In some cases, medication alone may be effective, but usually a more holistic approach is best. In addition to medication, doctors often recommend talk therapy, stress management, nutritional improvement and other lifestyle changes. Don’t struggle with a mental health issue alone. Ask for help.