Mental Health, Community Support and an Aging Society

I recently met with representatives of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Ontario Division to discuss how CARP and the CMHA might work together to promote positive mental health and healthy aging.

As we discussed mental health/illness and cognitive issues related to an aging population, I learned some eye-opening facts.

Fact: 20% Canadians of all ages, cultures, education and income levels will experience a diagnosable mental illness this year, yet only one third of those in need will get access to treatment and community support. Of those who do, half will not get what they need.

The impact of this on family, friends and caregivers can be overwhelming. A recent report by the CMHA, entitled Mental Health and Addictions Issues for Older Adults, notes that in the population over the age of 65, it is estimated that mental health problems (ranging from depression, addictions and anxiety, to various forms and degrees of dementia), affect between 17 and 30 % of older adults, and if sub-clinical depression and anxiety are added, estimates rise to 40%.

According to the study, there is growing evidence that the incidence of mental illness is on the rise in our aging society. However, there is reluctance for people to self-identify, or for family members and peers to face the issue, due in part to social stigmas related to aging. Early identification and intervention are key factors in positive mental health and healthy aging strategies.

The research has shown that psycho-social interventions such as peer support networks, education programs that promote mental and physical wellness, affordable and appropriate housing, adequate income, opportunities for recreation and exercise, and access to transportation, all play significant roles in mitigating or preventing age-onset depression and cognitive decline.

As our population ages, it is incumbent upon us all to examine our assumptions about aging and the implications for mental health. Evidently, what many people fear more than the loss of physical abilities related to aging, is the loss of mental capacity, or cognitive impairment. It is often erroneously regarded as an inevitable, irreversible and unpreventable consequence of aging.

Challenging ageist stereotypes and stigmas that perpetuate discriminatory behaviour and attitudes is an important step in addressing mental health issues affecting an aging population. For example, depression is often seen as a normal part of the aging process, rather than what it is—a serious, but treatable, disease. Similarly, while some may joke about having a “senior’s moment” when they can’t recall a name, others see it as the frightening specter of dementia. One negative outcome of these social stigmas is the development of “self-stigma” in those suffering from mental health and addiction issues. One’s own biases and fear of being stigmatized create barriers to treatment and support. If people don’t believe they can influence their own mental health, they will have little motivation to attempt to do so.

Yes, I learned a number of things during my meeting with CMHA, including the importance of peer support, caregiver support and social engagement in promoting and sustaining positive mental health, and how poor nutrition, social isolation, and difficulties in managing daily living interfere with good mental health. I also came away with a greater appreciation of the need for more public education initiatives to counter the negative myths and stereotypes about aging and mental health that our society harbours. A good starting point for learning more about mental health is the Canadian Mental Health Association, website.

Keywords: mental impairment, caregivers