Thursday 10th October 2019 was World Mental Health Day. Social media was inundated with posts about the importance of awareness and compassion for all kinds of mental health issues, and the sincere love and care that greeted any onlooker was tangible. From the ginger-themed skit by Prince Harry and Ed Sheeran to the little quotes popping up on my instagram feed, it truly warmed the heart on a day that was otherwise cold and grey.
The central theme of the majority of posts that we were confronted with seemed to be awareness. And it’s true, the stigma and shame that can characterise poor mental health are both unwarranted and outdated. Every feeling deserves validation, and every person deserves recognition. For all intents and purposes, I felt that this important sense of inclusion was well reflected in the ethos of the day.
Yet suddenly it dawned on me that there was one category of people who I hadn’t heard or seen a single mention of with regards to mental health. Despite the numerous all-inclusive, awareness-conscious voices that I’d heard, one group remained distinctly silent – older people.
The mental wellbeing of older people remains consistently overlooked, which is surprising bearing in mind they are amongst the most vulnerable to mental health problems. Often confronted with ailing physical health, social isolation and loneliness, widowhood, and the bitter loss of independence, older people face many challenges that put them at risk.
Furthermore, society at large is aware of these challenges – however, common perceptions of older people and popular assumptions about old age all culminate to ensure that they are perpetually overlooked. In one study by UCL and the University of Bristol, it was found that many people considered mental health issues in later life not only understandable, but inevitable. These ailments, from dementia to depression, are normalised and therefore trivialised as just another unfortunate side-effect of mortality. The proper recognition of mental health problems in older people is hindered by the extent to which their lack of visibility is engrained. GP’s, for example, are likely to prioritise the physical health of older people over their mental health. In 2013, it was estimated that mental health services for older people were underfunded by £2.3 billion compared to services for younger adults.
This is shocking when you consider the facts. In the UK, approximately 22% of men and 28% of women aged 65+ are affected by depression – however an estimated 85% of those people will never seek help from the NHS. Roughly 60% of people in care homes for the elderly have some sort of mental illness. In addition, whereas 50% of younger people with depression are referred to mental health services, a figure that is still far too low, by comparison only 6% of older people are. People aged 65+ accounted for 30% of those admitted to hospitals in England for alcohol misuse from 2016-7, a figure which has risen from just 14% in 2010-11. The menopause, another topic requiring more awareness, can trigger relapse in those who have suffered from eating disorders earlier in life. The statistics are numerous and upsetting – yet on World Mental Health Day 2019, I did not hear a single one.
So that brings me to my point, at last. The greater awareness around mental health in current times is a wonderful development, but it is important to consider that those who struggle come not only in all shapes and sizes – but in all ages, too. Our generation is increasingly adept at expressing ourselves and our emotions both privately and publicly – this is brilliant, but that does not mean that those who are less able, or willing, to do so should be left behind. Ultimately, we have older people to thank for everything – and we owe them the recognition and the support that they deserve. And with that, I’m going to give my recently widowed grandfather, who still fights the weeds in my grandmother’s garden, a call. I hope that after reading this, you might do the same.