Half of adults aged 55 and over have experienced common mental health problems, say Age UK

The charity is joining forces with NHS England to encourage older people to seek help and is calling on GPs to spot the warning signs.

Nearly half of adults (7.7million) aged 55+ say they have experienced depression and around the same number (7.3 million) have suffered with anxiety, according to new YouGov research for the charity Age UK – revealing the scale of the mental health challenge facing older people in the UK today.

The death of loved ones (36 per cent) ill health of themselves (24%) and financial worries (27 per cent) are the most common triggers for mental health problems, yet worryingly more than a third (35%) say they did not know where to go for help and support. This comes as NHS England has published 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 5 (21 per cent) of the people who reported suffering from anxiety or depression said that their symptoms had in fact worsened as they’d got older.

Research indicates feelings of loneliness and isolation could play a major role in the problems older people are facing.  Nearly three-quarters of older people (72 per cent) think that having more opportunities to connect with other people (e.g. joining local activity groups) would be the best way to help people who are experiencing mental health problems.

As well as having opportunities to connect with other people, more than a third (35 per cent) felt that talking therapy such as counselling would best help older people with anxiety and depression. Research has found older people respond extremely well to talking therapies; the recovery rates for patients aged over 65 years of age who completed a course of talking therapy through the Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies programme (IAPT) were shown to be positive.

One in 4 older people (25 per cent) said they felt it was more difficult for older people to discuss mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, compared to younger people. The top reasons given were:

  • When older people were growing up, society didn’t recognise depression or anxiety as a health condition
  • Depression and anxiety used to be seen as a weakness, so it’s not something the older generation are comfortable discussing
  • The older generation were taught to approach life with a “stiff upper lip”

Age UK and NHS England are hoping to encourage older people to seek help and are calling on GPs to spot 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.

“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, said: “This is further evidence to show why the NHS is putting mental health front and centre of patient care. As part of what has been independently described as ‘the world’s most ambitious effort to treat depression, anxiety and other common mental illnesses’, we are helping doctors to recognise and respond to mental ill-health in later life.

“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.”

Age UK runs a range of services to help support older people with mental health problems from Men in Sheds clubs to dedicated counselling services. There is also a free guide called Your Mind Matters focusing on improving mental wellbeing which is available on the Age UK website and via the Advice Line on 0800 169 6565.