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Mental Illness in Adults: How to Help

Nearly 15 million Americans experience depression each year.

We tend to think of depression as a young person’s disease — maybe because the median age for the development of the disorder is 32 years old. However, depression can affect anyone at any age, including seniors.

According to the American Psychological Association, 20 percent of individuals age 55 or older deal with mental illness. Unfortunately, depression in this age group is largely overlooked and patients aren’t seeking the help they need either. Many older adults don’t get treatment because they don’t recognize the signs of depression or they are too embarrassed to see a doctor. Treatment for depression has a high success rate, but only two out of three adults actually seek help or get proper treatment.

There are several ways we can help seniors who experience depression, including doing better screening. We’re already moving a step in the right direction, as a government panel recently released updated recommendations that encourage all adults 18 and older to be regularly screened for depression. Here are other ways to help an older adult who is dealing with depression:

Offer Support

As I previously mentioned, many people don’t get treatment for mental illness because they are hesitant to see a doctor. Family support is critical when a loved one is undergoing a hard time. If you notice that your parent, grandparent or other older family member is detached or withdrawn and doesn’t enjoy the things they use to, talk to them and ask if everything is ok.

Give them your emotional support and lend a compassionate ear, so that they feel more comfortable sharing their feelings with you. Invite them to go for a walk or to get a bite to eat. Make sure they aren’t isolated and are surrounded by people who love and care about them.

Explore Therapy

Depression in older adults can be due to several causes, including a long-term illness, physical disability, dementia, poor diet and malnutrition or negative drug interactions with prescribed medications.

Therapy is an effective treatment for depression because it addresses the cause, rather than just the symptoms of the disorder. Therapy can teach you coping skills to better deal with stress and life difficulties. Counseling from peers, a pastor or other spiritual advisor can help you feel less alone and give you more hope that things will get better. Support groups also help because you can talk to other people who share your experience and understand exactly what you’re going through.

Seek Medical Help

If you have symptoms of depression — including fatigue, social withdrawal or a depressed mood that lasts longer than two weeks — it’s best to see a doctor. A doctor can assess you and decide whether antidepressant medication is the appropriate treatment. Since older adults have a greater risk for negative drug interactions, antidepressants may not be the best option for every patient. In fact, research has shown that therapy, lifestyle changes and exercise may be just as effective in treating depression in older adults.

In some cases, herbal remedies and natural supplements, like Omega-3 fatty acids and folic acid, also can treat depression. These drugs are much safer than antidepressants. However, to be extra cautious, check with your doctor before beginning any new drug regimen.

Depression affects millions of people every year, but that doesn’t mean you should suffer in silence. If you experience any of the symptoms I mentioned, talk to your doctor and get the help you need.

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