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Mental Illness is not a Normal Part of Aging

One in five Americans will experience some type of mental illness in their lives, yet it remains critically underdiagnosed and undertreated in the baby boomer population. Two-thirds of older adults with mental health problems do not receive the treatment they need.

If mental illness is such a pressing issue in the older population, why do so many boomers remain undiagnosed and untreated? Part of the problem may be some negative stereotypes about aging — the idea that it is “normal” for someone to grow lonelier or more unhappy as they age.

Contrary to these negative stereotypes, feelings of depression or excessive anxiety are not normal parts of aging. They are signs of treatable medical conditions, similar to diabetes or hypertension.  

Circumstances that cause disruption or a feeling of lacking control can also be difficult for those experiencing anxiety or depression. A worldwide pandemic such as the COVID-19 virus can present challenges and require changes that are particularly hard to manage. In addition to the loss of control, economic issues such as financial stress or food insecurity may arise.

This article presents ways to identify the symptoms of two of the most common mental health conditions, anxiety and depression – as well as how to use Medicare to get treatment.

Anxiety: Symptoms and Treatment Options

Feelings of excessive nervousness or fear and physical responses to those feelings – such as chest pains, headaches or gastrointestinal problems can be symptoms of anxiety.  A study found that between 3% and 14% of older adults meet the criteria for a diagnosable anxiety disorder. An even greater percentage have symptoms of anxiety that may not amount to the diagnosis of a disorder, but still significantly impact functioning.

Common anxiety disorders include panic disorder (characterized by panic attacks, or sudden feelings of terror that strike repeatedly), obsessive-compulsive disorder (suffering from repetitive unwanted thoughts or rituals), post-traumatic stress disorder (nightmares, depression, and other persistent symptoms after a traumatic event), phobias (extreme fear of something that poses little danger) and generalized anxiety disorder (chronic, exaggerated worry about everyday activities).

When experiencing symptoms of anxiety or any of the above anxiety disorders, it is important to seek medical help immediately. You can start by assessing your own mental health through an online screening. Created by nonprofit Mental Health America, the screening is a free and anonymous way to learn about personal mental health. While this tool is not the same as an official diagnosis, it can be a helpful way to start a conversation with a medical provider or loved one.

Doctors typically treat anxiety through a combination of therapy and medication, but individual treatment plans and needs vary per person.

If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of anxiety take an anxiety screening.

Depression: Symptoms and Treatment Options

Common symptoms of depression include extended periods of sadness, loss of pleasure in everyday activities, poor sleep, quickly losing or gaining weight. Other signs are a loss of energy or the ability to focus on everyday tasks.  More than 2 million older adults (65 years and older) suffer from some form of depression. Many people who suffer from anxiety may also experience depression.

Depression not only severely limits quality of life and someone’s ability to take care of themselves, but it can also lead to physical health problems, such as slower recovery from physical illness. Depressed people are also at a greater risk for suicidal thoughts and actions. Some people may be concerned about a stigma with seeking treatment or having a diagnosis, but clinical depression is a common problem facing millions of people that is amplified without proper diagnosis.

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of depression, it is important to seek the help of mental health professionals. Start by assessing your own mental health through an online screening that focuses on depression symptoms While this tool is not the same as an official diagnosis, it can be a helpful way to start a conversation with your medical provider or loved ones.

Similar to anxiety, doctors typically treat depression through a combination of therapy and medication.

If you feel that you may be experiencing symptoms of depression take a depression screening.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and would like to talk to a crisis counselor, call the free and confidential National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

Getting help with costs: Medicare + Mental Health Treatment

Worrying about health insurance costs should never be a barrier to treatment. Medicare helps cover a wide range of mental health services, including screening for mental illness, lab tests ordered by your doctor, and visits with a doctor, psychiatrist, clinical psychologist or clinical social worker. Part D helps cover the drugs you may need to treat a mental health condition.  To learn more about gaining access to the mental health services available through Medicare, take  our Questionnaire.

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