How talking therapy can help older people improve their mental health

‘It’s vitally important that we are able to manage both mental and physical health as we become older.’

Age UK and NHS England and NHS Improvement have launched a new campaign to encourage older people and health professionals to recognise mental health needs in later life. As part of the NHS Long Term Plan ambition for mental health, improving access to talking therapies for older people is a key priority. In this blog, Heather talks about her role as part of a talking therapy service, and how it can make a real difference and help improve the lives of older people.

‘Mental health amongst older people is often seen as secondary to their physical health. Many older people live with mental health issues that impact their day-to-day lives. They often don’t seek help as they may see problems with their mental health as just a natural part of ageing. But there is help available.

I was delighted to be in one of the very first cohort of trainees for Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners (PWP) in 2008. That career journey led me to my current role as Lead PWP for the NHS Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme, which is something that I’m extremely passionate about and committed to. IAPT is a programme of talking therapies with the aim of helping people overcome their depression and anxiety and better manage their mental health. Its impact and ability to improve the lives of people experiencing anxiety and depression serves as my daily motivation.

In the clinical part of my role, I provide evidence based talking treatments through one-to-one sessions, group sessions or online talking therapy treatments for different adult age groups and even though the age demographic for being referred for talking treatment has predominantly been working age, in recent years we’ve seen an increase in older adults accessing treatments and services too. But there are still fewer older people accessing IAPT services in comparison to other adult age groups – even though all the evidence shows that the outcomes for older people are stronger, and the recovery rates are greater after the treatment.

And this under representation of older people is an issue we’re seeing up and down the country. There are still too many barriers faced by older people which prevent them from receiving these services.

For example, different generations are encouraged to manage their problems in different ways. In the past mental health has been heavily stigmatised, but in recent years there has been a huge move towards normalising talking about mental health issues.  As a result of this older people have been more open about expressing feelings, yet there are still misconceptions or preconceptions about feelings of depression or anxiety experienced by older people and it’s possible these attitudes have contributed to referrals being missed by referrers, and symptoms going unrecognised by the older person themselves.

Some people may also feel that talking therapies won’t be helpful in addressing their problem. They may play down their problems, or they may feel that their low mood is a part of ageing and that there is nothing we can do, and they may not know what help is available for them.

Nevertheless, it’s vitally important that we are able to manage both mental and physical health as we become older. It is possible to self-refer or a GP can recommend the range of sessions and treatments on offer, and once an older person takes that step to come along to an assessment, they come along with an open mind and get along with our approaches really well.

The patient is an expert in themselves, and by working together with them we can help them to make an informed choice about which treatment is best for them and can adapt treatments to meet the individual needs.

I find that older people respond really positively to talking therapy sessions. They’re committed, they put into practice the techniques outside of sessions, they are willing to try things to compliment the treatment, and as a result they really feel the benefits from it.’

For more information on talking therapies visit the website.

For a free guide called Your Mind Matters which focuses on improving mental wellbeing or information on depression and anxiety in later life.

Heather Stonebank

Heather Stonebank is Lead Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner for Sheffield Improving Access to Psychological Therapies Service (IAPT), a role in which she provides clinical leadership for the PWP workforce.

Heather has 11 years’ experience of working in mental health services within Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust, working as part of Sheffield’s drug and alcohol team and on an acute mental health ward.

In October 2016 she was recruited into the Yorkshire and the Humber Clinical Network, NHS England, on secondment as a Lead PWP Clinical Advisor.

She is also co-chair of the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies Low Intensity Special Interest Group.

Heather has a keen interest in research to inform guidelines and clinical practice, is a member of the Northern Practice Research Network and has been involved in several research studies which have reached publication.

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  1. Sarah Boulden says:

    My father is 85 has a lot of pain due we think to osteoarthritis but has quite suddenly become extremely down in his mood
    Who could talk to him about this?

  2. Kasander says:

    It would be really good if such support was available instead of being directed to things like a Men’s Shed.

  3. John Kapp says:

    Hear Hear. Yes, but IAPT is still the Cinderella service in England, with 0.5 million pa treatedm but 7 million on antidepressants against NICE guidelines. Social prescribing is the answer if money were transferred from the drugs budget to a social prescribing budget as I am campaigning for on