Older People are Less Likely to Receive Mental Health Support

Age UK has drawn attention to the fact that older people are just as likely to be living with depression and anxiety as younger age groups, but are much less likely to be receiving the support they need.

In 2020/21 just 5% of referrals to NHS talking therapies were people over 65, significantly below the 12% hoped for and expected . The pandemic didn’t help of course, but in fact the proportion had already been declining for the previous two years before COVID-19 arrived.

Many older people find it very difficult to discuss their mental health but there is still a significant need.

According to the latest data extracted by Age UK, of people over 65:
• Over half a million (579,803) experience anxiety disorder
• Just under half a million (487,100) experience a major depressive disorder
• Just under 200,000 (191,740) experience chronic depressive disorder
• And over 140,000 (140,332) experience bipolar disorder.

It is also notable that a larger proportion of woman aged 65+ experience these difficulties than men. This is particularly the case among those reporting anxiety disorders, where nearly double the number of women are impacted compared to men.

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s Charity Director, said:
“Only some of us will experience a mental health condition, but most of us can feel depressed and lonely at some point in our lives. As we get older, we can also become especially vulnerable to factors that lead to depression such as bereavement, physical disability, illness and loneliness.

“The pandemic has hit older people particularly hard, making many of these risk factors unavoidable during their daily lives over the last two years. In fact though, depression isn’t a natural part of ageing, but older people often don’t seek help for their mental wellbeing and so they miss out on treatments that are available to them on the NHS. It is vital they get the help and support they need and talking therapies could make a huge difference to them. Older people shouldn’t be afraid to raise any mental health concerns with their GP.

“Mental health impacts on the physical health of older people and vice versa. For example, older adults with physical health conditions such as heart disease have higher rates of depression than those who are healthy. In addition, untreated depression in an older person with heart disease can negatively affect its outcome[iv], making it all the more important that anyone struggling with a mental health problem speaks out and asks for the help they need.”

“The pandemic has had a big impact on us all and very few of us are emerging from it totally unscathed. We know that many older people may feel reluctant to start a conversation about their mental health with their GP, but NHS treatments such as counselling are just as effective in older people as they are with other age groups. There is a commitment by NHS England to increase overall access to talking therapies, but older people seem to be continually missing out. For this reason we think that there should be a specific target for older people; without it the chances are the trend will continue to move in the wrong direction, with even fewer older people being enabled to access talking therapies than there are now.

Peter Ireland, Counselling Manager for Age UK Manchester, said:
“We’ve known throughout the pandemic that there was a lot of unmet need for mental health support. Services were reduced and people were told to stay at home. Whilst this will have reduced a person’s risk of getting Covid, it will have undoubtably have increased feelings of loneliness, isolation, stress and worsening or sometimes new mental health concerns. As a result, levels of anxiety have increased with increased numbers of people struggling with social anxiety and even agoraphobic tendencies. There is also an increase in the need for bereavement counselling, with grief being complicated by people not being able to be with loved ones when they died and, in some cases, not being able to attend their funerals.

“This level of need has led to a sort of ‘ticking time bomb’ for mental health support and we are now starting to see that come home to roost. In March, for example, our Counselling Service provided more counselling hours than it has in any other time since its creation more than 25 years ago.”

In Age UK’s most recent survey of older people on the impact of Covid (April 22) we heard many comments like these:
‘I have felt extremely lonely for the first time in my life as I have taken shielding very seriously. I have been at home, only leaving for medical appointments. My anxiety is sky high.’

‘There are days when i don’t want to be here anymore as my quality of life is so bad with psoriasis, depression, Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and little health care interest, [while] on top of that money worries…’

‘Isolating is very debilitating mentally, very little human contact is hard to deal with.’

‘Anxiety and stress levels are higher. Depression and paranoia have been affecting me and my family relationships.’

‘I’m more depressed, prefer my own company, got used to not seeing family. Seem to have lost confidence outside the home. I’m working on it. It takes effort.’

‘The pandemic has had an effect on my whole life and if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I would still have been able to get enjoyment out of life despite my health problems and would have been able to cope with my problems more easily.’