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Older people’s mental health in New Zealand

Older people have diverse experiences of ageing. Mental health is just as important for older people as it is for younger people. Just over 7% of older adults living in the community experience mental illness and/or addiction each year. The prevalence of mental illness is estimated to be 3 – 6 times higher among older adults living in residential facilities.Older men have high rates (per population) of suicide compared to men in other age groups and women. In terms of problematic substance use, older people have high rates of hazardous or harmful alcohol consumption and while rates of other substance use are currently low, these are expected to increase over time.

Older people’s experiences of mental health and mental health services show that problems with mental health and substances can go unrecognized and have tended to be underestimated. Coexisting physical health and cognitive conditions also add complexity to these issues. Considerable barriers to access primary mental health and addiction services for older people signify misperceptions that older people do not have such problems, lack of knowledge of the signs and symptoms, and confusion with ageing.

Older people’s access to secondary care mental health and addiction services is low compared to younger adults, children and youth. Consequently, there may be substantial unrecognised and unmet need among older people, particularly those who are unwell, in hospital care, and those living in aged care and other residential facilities. Evidence suggests primary prevention and early intervention activities can be effective at reducing the number of people whose problems escalate, in turn reducing demand on secondary mental health and addiction services. There are effective treatment and support options for older people accessing secondary mental health and addiction care.

Demand for mental health and addiction services for this age group will continue to grow as the population ages. Therefore more research into older people’s mental health needs should help identify what needs to be done, and will guide the development of a workforce in mental health and addiction services for adults, with dedicated services for older people both now and for the future.

Needing help?

  • Seek help early from someone experienced in older people’s issues, e.g. your local older persons service, your doctor (particularly if he or she has experience in older people’s issues).
  • Don’t let feelings of fear, embarrassment, shame, etc., stop you from getting help. Get help early; don’t wait until things get worse.
  • Don’t down-play the symptoms.
  • If you have been given some treatment or advice (e.g. medication, counselling etc.) and it isn’t helpful, say so.
  • See the website www.depression.co.nz

If an older person has talked to you and you or they are concerned about their emotional or mental wellbeing, take them seriously and advise them to seek professional assistance. Offer to take them or accompany them to their first appointment.

About Eve Williams

Eve Williams is the Content Developer and Social Media Administration for Eldernet. She is currently studying towards her Masters at the University of Canterbury. She has a passion for learning new things.