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As people age, their personal state of health and well-being should take a larger role in life. Through diet and exercise, the physical side of health is often the prime focus of the aging rather than mental health.

Perhaps due to the stigma surrounding it, mental health is often overlooked. The World Health Organization (WHO) even defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

In fact, the CDC states that over 20% of adults over 55 suffer from some form of mental illness. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, it is important to discuss and understand mental illness in the elderly—and shed the stigma.


One of the most prevalent mental health issues affecting the elderly—and in overall sociality, in fact—is depression. The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation estimates that between 15–20% of older Americans suffer from depression, and it may be more—depression is one of the most underreported illnesses in the world.

Depression, according to the CDC, is “more than just a passing mood.” Depression can begin to surface in the elderly, but it is more likely an illness carried throughout a person’s life. Signs of depression include persistent feelings of sadness, loss of interest and pleasure in once-enjoyed activities, change in weight or appetite, lack of or too much sleep, trouble concentrating, feelings of worthlessness and even thoughts of suicide.

Depression can also lead to heart failure, and it is linked to many other diseases that affect the elderly. The recommended treatment for depression is counseling with a trained mental health professional. Depression in older adults can also be worsened by changes in their life, such as an unwanted move or the loss of a loved one; it is important for family and those involved to be supportive and aware as well.


Just like depression, anxiety is often an illness carried throughout one’s life. The CDC states that anxiety disorders are “characterized by an excessive and unrealistic worry about everyday tasks and events or may be specific to certain objects or rituals.” Many older adults who experience depression also experience some form of anxiety, so the two often go hand in hand.

Though it also rings true among the general population, traumatic experiences can bring on anxiety. These include health experiences and other life changes encountered when aging; for example, after a traumatic fall, seniors may experience intense anxiety about potentially falling again. Seeking advice from a physician or counselor, as well as support from loved ones, are also key ways to treat anxiety.

Substance Abuse

Abuse of alcohol or drugs have a negative effect on any person’s life, including the aging. The medical community and the general population have begun to accept that drug and alcohol abuse is a mental health issue itself—not just the cause of other health issues.

An estimated five to eight million older adults reported substance abuse problems in 2010, and that number has since grown. Alcoholism is a lifelong problem that can last throughout a person’s life. However, alcohol and drug problems can be exacerbated by loss of family members and other changes that occur while aging.

The misuse of prescription drugs is apparent in the aging as well. Americans over 65 comprise just 13% of the population but represent a third of all prescription costs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, making the aging more susceptible to abusing said drugs. It is important to stick to doctor-recommended doses and to consult a physician if a prescription is not working.

It is important to seek treatment when suffering from substance abuse. It is estimated that more than four million older Americans will need substance abuse treatment by 2020. Once again, counseling, as well as a support system of loved ones, can be key for treatment.


There is some disagreement in the mental community on whether dementia should be classified as a mental illness. Dementia itself is an umbrella term for a number of diseases and disorders that cause behavioral, cognitive and emotional impairments. A prime example of a dementia disorder is Alzheimer’s disease. While many people associate dementia with mental illness, it is more closely related to cognitive neurological disorders. It is important for a person to discuss their symptoms with their primary physician in order for them to determine whether a patient is suffering from a mental illness or something more neurological.

No matter what a person may be suffering from, it is vital to be open and honest with doctors in order to pave the best possible path for care both the short term and the long term. Often, getting older can mean big changes in a person’s life. It is important to discuss these changes, and how they make a person feel with family and loved ones. Hopefully, with awareness and understanding, Americans can drop about the stigma surrounding mental illness and start the process of healing and help for themselves and those around them.