For Seniors, Mental Health Treatment Supports Physical Health

As we grow older, we are more likely to be living with chronic health conditions. Heart disease, arthritis, vision and hearing loss, diabetes and many other illnesses all can take a toll on our quality of life, so it’s not surprising that many seniors who are living with health challenges are also dealing with depression, anxiety and sometimes even suicidal thoughts.

And the coronavirus pandemic unfortunately may be making things worse. According to the CDC, “Fear and anxiety about a new disease and what could happen can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. …Social distancing can … increase stress and anxiety.”

No matter the source of stress, it’s important to remember that mental health conditions can make our physical health problems worse. Depression and anxiety make it harder to get enough exercise, eat a healthy diet, and manage our medical routine and medications—all the more reason to seek help from a mental health professional.

If you or an older loved one are thinking about seeing a mental health professional, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) offers these tips:

  1. Begin with your primary care provider. As you’re discussing your physical condition, take the opportunity to tell the doctor if you’re feeling anxiety or depression, or if you’ve experienced thoughts of suicide. Many doctors routinely ask senior patients about mental health symptoms these days; don’t brush off the question. Your doctor can refer you to a mental health specialist.
  2. Prepare ahead for your first visit. Make a list of questions and concerns. Prepare a list of your medications (including prescription and nonprescription drugs, herbal remedies and supplements). Review your family history of mental disorders.
  3. Be honest. Older patients often keep quiet about mental illness. But providers can only help you get better if they have a clear idea of what you’re going through. They will want to know about stresses and changes in your life circumstances, and whether you have symptoms such as:
    • Persistent sad, anxious or “empty” mood
    • Feeling hopeless or pessimistic
    • Irritability
    • Feeling guilty, worthless or helpless
    • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
    • Fatigue or decreased energy
    • Moving or talking more slowly
    • Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
    • Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
    • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening or oversleeping
    • Appetite or weight changes (or both)
    • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
    • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment

4. Ask questions about your diagnosis and the suggested treatment. Be sure you understand everything, and express any concerns you might have. Remember that you can get a second opinion from a different provider. The NIMH says, “It’s important to remember that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ treatment. You may need to try a few different health care providers and several different treatments, or a combination of treatments, before finding one that works best for you.”

Our physical and mental health are intricately intertwined. Seeking help for depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions supports our physical health, as well.

Source: IlluminAge and the National Institute of Mental Health