Overlooked and Underserved: Seniors Needing Mental Health Care

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More than 20 percent of adults 65 years and older meet the criteria for depression and other mental illness. Photo via Pixabay

By Paul Downey

Imagine sitting next to a senior and hearing the words, “I’m going to kill myself today.” Recently, this happened to one of our social workers. I wish this was a unique case; however, senior citizens commit suicide at higher rates than any other age group. They face a number of life changes that affect their overall well-being. Losing a loved one, lack of social support, memory loss or adjusting to physical body changes can all increase the risk of developing mental health issues.

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With a growing population of older adults — 10,000 people are expected to turn 65 every day over the next 15 years — there is a shortage of mental health professionals qualified to treat the unique needs of seniors. There are only 6,000 geriatric social workers nationwide with a current need of 32,600. The demand is expected to double by the time all Baby Boomers reach age 65.

According to the American Psychological Association, more than 20 percent of adults 65 years and older meet the criteria for a mental illness. As the number of seniors continues to grow, so will the number of people experiencing mental health issues. Because mental health is essential to successful aging, it must be recognized and treated with the same importance as physical health.

At Serving Seniors, approximately one-third of our clients suffer from some form of mental illness — most commonly depression, dementia and anxiety. The majority of our seniors have incomes well below the poverty level, averaging just $850 per month. In conjunction with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, the mental health program at Serving Seniors proactively assesses and treats any mental health issue our seniors face. Our community-based services focus on outreach, education, assessments, treatment and social services. Without the appropriate care, provision of support systems and coordination with care providers, the chance of survival for seniors with a mental illness are slim to none.

Paul Downey

Studies have shown preventative measures can help alleviate mental health problems in older adults. Seniors who have better physical health are at a lower risk for depression and anxiety. Exercising three times a week has been shown to be more effective than prescription medicine.  Research has also found that keeping your mind active with games such as Scrabble or Sudoku, socialization and utilizing technology can decrease the likelihood of developing mental health disorders.

However, despite preventive measures, seniors remain at the highest risk for poor mental health and symptoms often go undiagnosed. The John A. Hartford Foundation found that 25 percent of seniors incorrectly thought depression was a condition natural to aging. This is concerning because depression can significantly increase other health risks. Depression is believed to double a person’s risk of dementia. It also increases the chance of a heart attack by more than 30 percent. Worst of all, the most common cause for elderly suicide is untreated depression.

There is a misconception that it is normal for older adults to feel sad or depressed. They may be in physical pain and believe there are no solutions for their problems. Some believe they are powerless to change their circumstances and do not want to be a burden to others. We have to change that perception. Depression is not a normal aging process.

This May, in recognition of Mental Health Month, we need to join together as a community and reach out to seniors who may be struggling with mental health issues. Prevention and early intervention are critical to keeping our seniors happy and healthy.


For two decades, Paul Downey has been the president and CEO of Serving Seniors, a nonprofit agency dedicated to increasing the quality of life for San Diego seniors living in poverty for the last 45 years.

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