So… how’s your mental health?

Most of us have been pretty obsessed with our physical health for the past two years. Like me, you can probably list all the possible symptoms of Covid, the signs of long Covid, the possible reactions to the vaccines, the rates of illness among older adults, and the reasons why some people should take extra care when exposed to the disease. But what about our mental health? It has certainly also been affected by the pandemic and more recently the war in Ukraine. Are we, the elders of society, more willing to talk about mental health today than we were in the past? Are we as willing to seek help for our mental condition as we are for our physical one?

The survey

To answer some of these questions about the mental health of older adults, I turned to eHealth, a nationwide insurance broker that represents most of the major Medicare plan carriers in the US, including Medicare Advantage carriers. In early 2022, they conducted a large survey of Medicare beneficiaries age 65 and older who had purchased a Medicare plan from them. The survey focused on Americans’ views of mental health care. The questions they asked the 3,800 respondents focused on three areas: 1) how important mental health care is to them; 2) how they feel about mental health in general; and 3) whether they received psychiatric services.

The results

One of the key findings of eHealth surprised them: Many seniors are unaware of the mental health benefits of Medicare. When asked in the survey, a full 61 percent did not know that Medicare offered any mental health benefits at all. An unfortunate consequence of this lack of knowledge is that seniors who know they need help with their emotional/mental state do not seek it because they fear the cost and do not believe their insurance will cover any part of it will.

eHealth survey results also showed that there are benefits to mental health care are important for older people. Sixty-four percent of respondents said mental health services are as important as other forms of medical care, and more than half (53%) have used mental health care in the past. 72 percent said they look for mental health benefits when choosing a health insurance plan.

Is it the pandemic?

The pandemic appeared to play an important role in survey participants’ willingness to seek mental health care. Forty-eight percent said they were “very willing” to seek mental health care today. This compared to 35% before the Covid-19 pandemic and 29% ten years ago. Thirty-seven percent said they were “not that ready” or “not at all ready” to seek mental health treatment ten years ago.

Increased isolation or a feeling of loneliness due to the pandemic was reported by 39% of survey participants. Seven percent overall and nine percent of women said they had received mental health care for the first time since the pandemic began. Almost one in six said they had lost a loved one due to Covid-19.

Can we get help?

According to the study, two-thirds of older adults are just as willing to talk about mental health problems as they are about other illnesses. Interestingly, however, half of those surveyed said they had never spoken to their GP about mental health. However, these results were quite skewed by age. Those in the 65-70 age group were the most likely (53%) to have had a mental health discussion with their GP, while those over 80 reported far fewer (34%) of these discussions. It seems like attitudes towards mental health change with the generations and the circumstances.

At least a third of seniors have received either counseling or prescription medication. 36% of older adults report having participated in individual therapy; Thirty-three percent were prescribed medication to improve or support their mental health. Ten percent have taken part in some form of group therapy.

When asked about their current well-being, nearly 25% of older adults who took part in the survey said they currently suffer from anxiety. Many others say they have lost interest in things that used to bring them joy, or that they currently feel depressed and lonely. Some grieve, mostly because of the loss of a loved one. The biggest culprits cited for their lack of well-being are financial stress, politics and concerns about Covid. And it’s important to note that this poll was conducted several weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.

What now?

The results of this survey do not bode well for the mental health of older adults in our society. However, it very likely reflects the state of Everyone adults in the US and beyond today. Most psychotherapists and therapists I know are busier than they’d like to be, turning patients away on a weekly basis. Is it due to actual events or the 24 hour news cycle available on every media platform we can access? Wouldn’t we be happier people if we didn’t know instantly about every horrible detail of life on earth? The evidence over time suggests we would, but since we cannot turn back the clock, we must find ways to cope with our environment in its present form and seek help for our mental state when we need them.

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