Don’t walk away – a mental health challenge

Don’t walk away – a mental health challenge

 

One of the most interesting and yet challenging studies I have read recently was one published in the British Journal of Psychology last week. In an extensive European wide study researchers found many more elderly people than expected have or have experienced a mental disorder when evaluating them with a new, simpler screening technique. Indeed they discovered that nearly one-quarter of older people had a mental disorder in the previous year, and one-third had been treated for one in the previous year.

 

Traditionally it had been thought that the risk of mental disorders declined with age, but this new study suggests that is not true, raising concerns because of the greater effect depression, anxiety or substance dependence can have on health conditions for older people.

 

According to the researchers, older people struggle to remain attentive during traditional diagnostic tests and the questions may be too long or complicated, which makes their performance even worse. For the new study, researchers developed a new diagnostic method using a computer-based interview system with simplified questions and statements.

 

This research seems to underpin what I have been hearing and witnessing when I talk to staff who work in care homes, care at home and housing support services. The challenges facing services in Scotland are significant. It was therefore a positive measure to see proposals in the consultation on Scotland’s Ten Year Mental Health Strategy which have the potential to address the mental health challenges of our older citizens.

 

Scottish Care has made a response to the consultation. In it we highlight that many older people develop mental health challenges later in life, often when they are receiving care at home or care in residential settings.

 

We have come a long way in the last ten years with our work on dementia. However, there has always been a risk that the focus on dementia has taken our eye off other mental health and life enduring challenges faced by older Scots. I spoke recently to someone who had lived with chronic depression most of their adult life and had received good supports until that is they got to 65 years of age. Then almost overnight, he told me, it felt like the system was abandoning him and the supports he had been used to changed and disappeared.

 

“It was like standing at a window and seeing everything and everyone who had helped you live your life, especially in the down times, walk down the street and wave goodbye. I felt really alone.”

 

 

We have I believe to get much better at supporting people who have life enduring mental health challenges transition from adult to older people services. This will include properly resourcing the older people care sector to train and equip staff to deal with mental health issues and challenges and also to give greater priority to enable the development of new models of support which can cater for individual and particular mental health needs.

 

In addition, old age itself brings about a whole range of changes, many of which are positive and welcomed, but some are challenging and difficult. I do not believe, and the study quoted above highlights this, that we have sufficiently robust mechanisms in place for diagnosing and then supporting individuals who develop a whole range of conditions after the age of 65.

 

There is a real opportunity for Scottish Government, older people and providers to work together to improve the quality of mental health support. At times of vulnerability we need to give people the feeling and sense that people are there to support and guide, not that they are walking away from them.

 

Dr Donald Macaskill

18th September, 2016

 

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