The Need for Behavioral Health Treatment

senior help

by Anne Jacobe, LCSW; St. Luke’s Hospital Senior Life Solutions 

As we age, we all need a little help to keep us healthy−both physically and mentally. While physical challenges are often diagnosed and treated, it can be hard to recognize when an older adult is in need of behavioral health treatment. An even more difficult task is finding treatment. It may also be hard to get them to accept treatment. With a growing elderly population, expected to reach 70 million by the year 2030, and an estimated 15 percent of them with some sort of behavioral health issue, the need for geriatric behavioral health services is increasing.

Geriatric behavioral health, or geropsychology, refers to the field of medicine dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders in older adults. These disorders include depression and anxiety brought on by the uniquely challenging issues affecting seniors, such as declining physical ability, loss of loved ones, loss of independence, or social isolation. While most depression and emotional illness in seniors is treatable, especially when dealt with early, there are many reasons why people who have been healthy and independent for such a long time often resist assistance or rationalize their symptoms as part of the normal course of aging. A few of these reasons include a lack of education about the symptoms of depression, the stigma associated with behavioral health problems, generational beliefs among many seniors, not knowing that a combination of therapy and medication is recommended to treat Behavioral Health issues, and a lack of specialized medical professionals.

The stigma of being “mentally ill” is one of the most prevalent reasons why many seniors resist treatment. People often associate those with behavioral health challenges with negative stereotypes. Because of this, many choose to distance themselves from those with behavioral health problems, whether they are receiving treatment or not. This can cause exacerbated feelings of social isolation especially in those with preexisting feelings of loneliness, like many seniors often experience, causing those older adults who are having behavioral health problems to under report their symptoms for fear that the stigma attached to the diagnosis will cause more loss and isolation in their lives.

Another reason many seniors avoid treatment for behavioral health issues is their generational mindset. Many older adults adhere to the beliefs that they shouldn’t “air their dirty laundry” or complain. They think that they should be able to fix themselves with determination and hard work, not with therapy and/or medications. Therefore, when seniors adhere to these beliefs it can make diagnosis and treatment particularly complicated.

Lastly, while there are specialized professionals in the field of geropsychology, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) report that there is an insufficient supply of these trained professionals available to provide mental and behavioral health services to older adults. Therefore, the person many older adults turn to for help is their primary care physician. However, many of these physicians lack adequate training in the care and management of geriatric patients. This makes recognizing geriatric behavioral health problems that much harder because neither the senior nor the physician may recognize the symptoms of an underlying mental health issue, and both may brush off the complaints as symptoms of aging.

Please do no Hesitate to seek Treatment

If you or a loved one is experiencing any of these symptoms: 

  • Sad or depressed mood lasting longer than two weeks
  • Social withdrawal; loss of interest in things that used to be enjoyable
  • Unexplained fatigue, energy loss, or sleep changes
  • Increase or decrease in appetite; changes in weight
  • Memory loss, especially recent or short-term memory problems
  • Feelings of worthlessness, inappropriate guilt, helplessness, thought of suicide
  • Physical problems that can’t otherwise be explained: aches, constipation, etc.
  • Changes in appearance or dress, or problems maintaining the home or yard
  • Trouble handling finances or woking with numbers

While many barriers continue to restrict the improvement and expansion of geriatric behavioral health services, there are innovative programs currently available in many states, including North Carolina and South Carolina. These programs can help patients discover how to handle life’s challenges, improve emotional stability and general functioning, and develop effective coping skills to find joy once again.