by Cody H. Owens, St. Luke’s Hospital
Call me crazy, but I actually like talking about mental health. Or, actually, don’t call me “crazy.” It’s hard enough to discuss something as stigmatizing as mental illness without tossing around words that can be harmful, even in jest. Even for someone like myself who sees a psychiatrist regularly, discussion about mental health can be hard to navigate.
Luckily, it’s a little easier to have these kinds of conversations in May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month. Whether you already see a professional or you are the pinnacle of mental wellness, it’s not something you should ignore. With physical health, you can’t neglect diet and exercise just because you’re healthy; in the same way, you can’t neglect your mental health just because you don’t think something is wrong. This is especially true for seniors. One in five adults over the age of 55 has experienced some sort of mental health concern, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and almost a third of them do not receive treatment.
Dr. Belynda Veser, Psychiatrist for St. Luke’s Hospital Center of Behavioral Medicine, explained that the reason why seniors often go untreated is due to “a lack of awareness of the problem, fear of stigma, or lack of access to appropriate services.”
Even if you don’t experience mental health concerns personally, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) said that “every American is affected or impacted [by mental illness] through their friends and family.”
The most common issue among people over the age of 55 is dementia or other cognitive impairment, particularly Alzheimer ’s disease, which affects around 11 percent (or five million)Americans.
Depression,mood disorders, and anxiety are other common issues. Struggling with mental disorders and illnesses can be isolating, but as statistics show, you and I aren’t alone.
Spotting the signs of mental illness can feel like reading the last line of an eye exam; it isn’t easy. Sometimes, the normal process of aging can be confused with the development of mental disorders. We all forget where we left the remote or that we were supposed to call Jeffrey for his birthday, so where does one draw the line between mental decline and regular aging?
Professionals advise that you look for the following: sad or depressed moods lasting longer than two weeks, a loss of interest in things that used to be enjoyable, unexplained fatigue, changes in sleep patterns, confusion and disorientation, problems with concentration or decision-making, changes in appetite, memory loss, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, and changes in appearance.
Physical problems that can’t otherwise be explained, like aches and constipation, can also hint at mental concerns.
“An early diagnosis is key in dealing with mental health problems so patients can get appropriate treatment,” Dr. Veser said. “Everyone should be mindful about their mental health, especially seniors. Patients over the age of 55 who have physical disabilities, poor diet, a history of alcohol or substance abuse, or who have recently changed their environment are particularly at risk.”
Changing your diet, quitting bad habits and exercising are easier said than done. They are necessary, but they aren’t the only actions you can take. So, what else can you do to maintain mental health?
Set aside time to build that birdhouse you’ve been thinking about. Call your niece for no reason other than to chat. Take naps. Watch a mindless show you’ve never seen before. Challenge yourself to drink more water. Stop having lunch every Tuesday with Negative Nancy if she’s bringing you down.
More often than not, maintaining mental wellness is less about seeing a physician and more about taking tiny steps to reduce stress and break up the monotony of life. If you find it difficult to identify ways to improve your mental health, or you don’t know where to start, there are plenty of local professionals who can help you.
“Health concerns, changes in family dynamics, financial changes, and changes in a person’s role in society can be overwhelming challenges for anybody, especially for those who are aging” Hector Gonzalez, Director of outpatient counseling program Senior Life Solutions, said. “No one should have to confront the challenges of mental health alone. We all need helping hands and resources to guide us through these times.”
These days, the conversation about mental health is getting easier, but professionals can’t answer the call unless we start talking. Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, use this time to evaluate yourself. Have you spoken to your doctor about your mental health? Are you experiencing any signs of mental disorders or illness? What about your loved ones?
Do yourself a favor and start the conversation today. It’s not easy, but there are so many resources in the community to help you maintain your mental wellness that you can rest assured you aren’t alone.