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Spot warning signs of mental health issues among over 55s, GPs urged

Over half of this age group affected, but they often don’t seek help, says charity Age UK

Caroline White

Friday, 06 October 2017

NHS England and Age UK are jointly calling on GPs to look out for the warning signs of mental health issues among the over 55s, following research commissioned by the charity showing that nearly half of those in this age group have experienced depression and/or anxiety.

The death of loved ones (36%), their own ill health (24%), and money worries (27%) are the most common triggers for mental health problems among the over 55s.

But more than a third (35%) of those questioned for the representative YouGov poll said they did not know where to go for help and support.

This comes as NHS England publishes new guidance ‘Mental health in older people’ to help GPs spot the tell-tale signs of anxiety and depression, and identify a range of mental health problems including those which specifically affect older people. 

One in five (21%) of those who said they had experienced anxiety or depression said that their symptoms had worsened as they had got older.

Research indicates feelings of loneliness and isolation could have a major role in the problems older people face. 

Nearly three quarters of older people (72%) think that having more opportunities to connect with other people (such as joining local activity groups) would be the best way to help alleviate mental ill health.

As well as having opportunities to connect with other people, more than a third (35%) felt that talking therapy such as counselling would best help older people with anxiety and depression. The evidence shows that older people respond extremely well to talking therapies.

One in four older people (25%) said they felt it was more difficult for people in their age group to discuss mental health issues, than it was for younger people.

The main reasons they gave were that when they were growing up, society didn’t recognise depression or anxiety as a health condition; that depression and anxiety used to be seen as a weakness, so it’s not something they feel comfortable talking about; and that the older generation were taught the “stiff upper lip” approach to life’s problems.

Age UK and NHS England are calling on GPs to be alert to the warning signs.

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK Director said: “In recent years there’s been nothing short of a cultural revolution in our willingness to be open about mental ill health, which is an essential pre-condition to people getting help, but it’s one that may well have left many older people behind. They grew up in an era when there was a real stigma associated with mental illness so for many these attitudes are deeply engrained and still driving their behaviour today.”

She added: “A further barrier to seeking support is that there is a widespread lack of awareness about effective treatments, beyond ‘taking pills’, which many older people feel they do quite enough of already.

“And finally, it is understandable if a lot of older people, having seen so much and having experienced so many ups and downs through life, take the view that feeling depressed or anxious is just something they have to put up with, not illnesses that are just as deserving of a proper medical response as a physical problem like a chest infection or a leg ulcer. For some they will indeed be recurrent problems that they have long since given up any hope of defeating.”

Alistair Burns, national clinical director for dementia, NHS England, commented:

“Depression and anxiety affect nearly eight million people over 55, but can often go unnoticed and untreated. Older people mustn’t miss out on help and treatment because of a ‘stiff upper lip’ approach to dealing with problems, or because they aren’t offered or don’t know where to go for help.

“GPs are the first port of call for many older people, so we are equipping doctors and their teams to better spot and tackle mental ill health in older adults.”

Royal College of GPs chair, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, said: “Older people are potentially vulnerable and we have to be careful that we don’t normalise depression and anxiety as a routine part of ageing.

“Mental health is a priority for GPs and we work with people with a wide range of mental health problems. However, many older people still feel there is a stigma attached to talking about depression and we need to persuade more people that opening up and talking about their mental health issues is not a sign of weakness.

"Anxiety and depression are potentially serious mental health conditions for people of all ages and must be treated as such.”

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