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Looking after your mental health

Mental health is an important factor in living a happy and healthy life. And especially for older Australians, your mental health can be critical to your overall health and wellbeing, which will help you live at home for longer.

Last updated: December 19th 2022
Older people should seek help if they notice something is wrong with their mental health. [Source: Unsplash]

Older people should seek help if they notice something is wrong with their mental health. [Source: Unsplash]

Key points:

  • If you notice something is ‘off’ or you don’t seem to be doing well mentally, you should seek help
  • Avoiding treatment can result in serious consequences
  • There are a lot of different professionals that can help you in addressing your mental health issues

It is estimated that one in five Australians experience a mental health condition at some point in their lives.  

For older people, anxiety and depression can be a common experience with one in twenty people over the age of 65 being diagnosed with a depressive or anxiety disorder.

Professor of Psychology and Director of the Centre for Ageing, Cognition and Wellbeing at Macquarie University, Viviana Wuthrich, explains that feelings of depression and anxiety occur often to people in residential aged care or to older people with chronic health conditions.

“Anxiety and depression can pop up for the first time in later life or it can be something someone has experienced on and off through their lifespan,” she explains.

Seek help

The good news is though that it’s never too late to seek help and according to Professor Wuthrich, seniors generally respond well to treatment.

“Once older people are told they have depression, then they are actually really willing [to get treatment]. Research has shown that they are really good candidates for psychological treatment.

“They are much more reliable, they do their homework more consistently, and they actually get better treatment outcomes because once they understand, they are really dedicated.”

Some common reasons for symptoms of depression and anxiety in older people include: 

  • Health, where health issues start to play a part or you end up hospitalised
  • Losses, whether that means retirement, family moving away, the death of loved ones, or the loss of physical abilities, like not being able to play golf or not being able to see well enough to drive 
  • General life stresses, such as financial problems, marital conflict, change in living arrangements and more 

Be honest with yourself if you are suddenly experiencing depression or anxiety from difficult events in your life. Depression or anxiety in seniors can be hard to diagnose. 

Research has shown that a lot of GPs, clinicians and even psychologists believe that depression and anxiety are just expected for older people to experience, so they won’t encourage the person to seek treatment.

Serious consequences if untreated

Professor Wuthrich says, “The thing that is really interesting about anxiety and depression in older people is that if it is not treated, it actually has really serious consequences. 

“We know you are more likely to die early, you are more likely to have worse physical health, you are more likely to develop dementia. Of course, you are also at risk of suicide or self-harm, the same as other populations. 

“There are lots of reasons why we should be trying to actually treat this, while usually we kind of ignore it and dismiss it, like ‘It’s normal when you are old to get grumpy and down because your body is failing and your friends have died.’ It is actually not normal.”

You should make sure to get treated if you notice your mental health is not in a good place and start the process of getting back onto your feet.

How to get help

Older people may not realise or recognise the problems they are having or facing are actually mental health issues. If you are not feeling yourself, you should visit your General Practitioner (GP) or local doctor for advice.

Your doctor can help you seek further treatment or advice from a professional psychologist, psychiatrist or counsellor to discuss how you are feeling and what issues you are experiencing.

Additionally, you can contact helplines, support groups and other health professionals who are able to listen to you and assist with your mental health. 

You will need a referral from a doctor if you want to claim mental health appointments on Medicare. Otherwise, you will have to pay for mental health appointments yourself. 

You will create a mental health treatment plan with the assistance of your doctor which will cover the issues you are experiencing, potential treatment options, and support services. They will also provide a letter of referral to your mental health expert of choice. 

This referral will allow for six appointments with a mental health professional that is subsidised by the Government. You will need to be reassessed by your doctor after your sixth appointment to receive a further 14 Government-subsidised appointments. 

You don’t have to receive a referral from a doctor to see a mental health specialist, but you won’t receive Government-subsidised appointments without a referral.

Getting on track

All mental health specialists can assist you in being happy and enjoying life. Different mental health specialists are able to provide assistance in different ways. 

  • Psychologists can treat mental health problems by helping you understand how you are feeling, resolving any issues you may have, implement different treatment strategies and make changes to your day to day that can improve your quality of life. You don’t have to get a referral to see a physiologist, however, it will cost more, and they cannot prescribe medication 
  • Psychiatrists can treat and diagnose mental health conditions with the use of medication, treatment plans and therapies. They will work alongside you, your family, and other specialists to make sure you understand and can manage your symptoms. Most psychiatrists do need a referral and there can be a long waiting list for appointments. 
  • Mental health nurses are available in the community and can provide education, counselling, offer advice and support, assist with medication, and link you with other services and professionals that can help 
  • Social workers are able to assist you in improving your mental wellbeing by making recommendations and promoting positive change 
  • Counsellors are able to discuss your feelings, possible solutions and causes of any stress, anxiety or depression, and then formulate a plan of action to manage your mental health

All of these professionals can have a positive impact on you and assist you in getting on track with your mental health. 

Mental health strategies

There are some basic daily things you can do to boost your mental health and combat any negative experiences you are having. 

For instance, socialising can play a positive role in keeping your mind happy and healthy. Whether it’s catching up with a friend for a regular cup of coffee or attending group social events with other older people in the community, there are a lot of different ways you can be social. 

There are also support groups available to assist you with any mental health conditions you may have. These groups can be targeted towards specific areas, like grief, boredom, loneliness or isolation. Additionally, it means you are getting out, meeting new people, and increasing your confidence. Depending on the support group, you may meet in person, online or over the phone. 

Staying active is another key component to developing optimal mental health. Try to engage in exercise where possible, like light walking, pilates, yoga or age-modified exercise and sports. 

Engaging with hobbies and activities you enjoy is a great way to boost your mental health and your mind. Try to keep your mind active through playing board or card games, crosswords, and sudoku, reading books, magazines or newspapers.

Related content:

Mental health services for older people in aged care
Assisting an older loved one with mental health conditions
Support lines and support groups for older people


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