Contributing Factors To Mental Health Issues for Elderly

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Mental Health and Seniors

Poor access to mental health services, inadequately trained primary care physicians and apathy among the senior population are contributing to high rates of mental illness among those older than 65, according to experts who testified Tuesday before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, the Los Angeles Times reports. According to the panelists, seniors have the highest rate of suicide among any age group.

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One-fifth of all suicides are committed by seniors. In addition, almost 40% of seniors show signs of depression, although only 3% seek psychological help, according to panelists. David Shern, president and CEO of the National Mental Health Association, said that fewer than half of adults with symptoms of depression are properly screened by their primary care physicians. Shern said, "I think you could probably characterize the situation as a national embarrassment," adding that more must be done to study suicide risks among the elderly.

Experts at the hearing pointed to two studies that showed promise in treating seniors with mental illnesses. For the first, conducted in New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, nurses and social workers teamed with physicians to identify older patients who showed signs of depression, and the providers followed up on their care. According to David Steffens, a geriatric psychiatrist at Duke University Medical Center, participants in the program were less likely to think about suicide than counterparts in the control group. For the second study, which was conducted in five states, clinical depression specialists worked with patients in primary care clinics.

Researchers found that seniors who participated in the program saw a 50% reduction in their depression symptoms compared with those in a control group. Committee Chair Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said, "There really should be no higher issue for us in Congress than to fix this" (Mendoza, Los Angeles Times, 9/15).

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