The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on mental health across all age groups, but seniors have been hit especially hard, as protective measures meant many seniors were cut off from their family and friends. But one unexpected benefit of the pandemic may be changing attitudes among seniors about seeking mental health help.
A new survey from health insurance provider eHealth found a 25% increase in the number of seniors willing to seek help for mental health concerns when compared to responses two years ago, before the pandemic hit. That jump is even larger when compared to responses from 10 years ago when just 29% of seniors said they were “very willing” to seek out mental health care (compared with 48% today).
Seniors are also increasingly willing to talk about their mental health, with nine out of 10 seniors in the survey stating they’re not embarrassed to discuss their mental health. That increased willingness to discuss mental health issues is translating into seniors actually seeking care: More than 50% said they had received mental health care at some point in their lives, and 7% had sought help for the first time during the years of the pandemic.
Pandemic increased mental health stressors
Isolation and loneliness are two of the biggest mental health stressors seniors faced during the pandemic: 19% of seniors said they feel depressed or lonely, and 24% said they are experiencing anxiety.
The survey found that among seniors dealing with mental health challenges like depression and anxiety, 38% linked their feelings to financial stress, while one in three worried the pandemic caused their mental health to worsen.
Mental health attitudes among seniors
Mental health is also moving up on seniors’ health care priority lists: 64% of seniors stated that mental health care is equally as important to them as physical health care, and 28% said mental health care benefits are more important than dental or vision benefits.
Another study from the University of Michigan backs up these findings, finding that 71% of respondents in that survey said they wouldn’t hesitate to seek mental health help from a professional.
Barriers to mental health care
While the stigma surrounding seeking help for mental health issues is subsiding – and a willingness to ask for help increasing – barriers still exist to accessing needed mental health care.
Although two-thirds of seniors in the eHealth survey said they would be willing to talk with their health provider about mental health issues, just half of seniors said they’d had a conversation with their medical provider about their mental health—proving there’s a need for both providers and seniors to be educated about the importance of these conversations.
Mental health issues are historically under-diagnosed in senior populations for a variety of reasons. Many seniors don’t mention the issues they’re having or they complain of symptoms like headache and fatigue instead of more traditional symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Another obstacle for many seniors in accessing mental health resources is understanding their health benefits. Just 39% of seniors in the survey knew that mental health benefits are available under Medicare. Seniors under the age of 80 were more likely to correctly identify the Medicare mental health benefits available to them than older seniors.
While the stigma around seeking help for mental health concerns has lessened, the eHealth survey shows there’s still some work to be done. One in 10 seniors in the survey had not sought help for a mental health issue specifically because of the stigma surrounding it.
Mental health resources for seniors
The COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on the need for mental health care resources for seniors, which resulted in the development of new resources for seniors:
- The How Right Now website created by the CDC and the CDC Foundation can help seniors identify how they are feeling and access resources that can help them improve their mental health and find appropriate care.
- The University of Michigan put together a guide for seniors and their caregivers designed to specifically address some of the mental health challenges the pandemic created for seniors.
- AARP offers a mental health resource center that focuses on mental health issues facing seniors as well as COVID-related mental health tips.
- Health in Aging provides helpful information about some of the most common mental health challenges facing seniors. Their information includes basic facts, symptoms, diagnosis, tests, treatment, lifestyle and management. You can even find questions you should ask your loved one’s doctor.
- For seniors who need help locating a mental health provider, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration lets seniors search by location to find professionals near them.
A silver lining
While the pandemic has been difficult for many seniors, one unexpected result has been an increasing willingness of seniors to talk about their mental health.
As more seniors open up about their mental health struggles, the stigma around these illnesses will continue to recede, making more people willing to admit their own challenges. And that openness brought on by the pandemic just might save lives.