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New program targets mental health issues in older Australians

Macquarie University in New South Wales has launched a new online mental health program as a way to provide mental health services to older Australians who would normally struggle to find and use these services.

Mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, can be common among older people, however, it is hard to map because many mental health services are not made for older people. [Source: iStock]
Mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, can be common among older people, however, it is hard to map because many mental health services are not made for older people. [Source: iStock]

The program, Ageing Wisely Online, has an accompanying study, which will be analysing the success of the program and also finding successful methods for treating mental health issues in Australia's oldest demographic.

Mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, can be common among older people, however, it is hard to map because many mental health services are not made for older people or clinicians don't feel like they are qualified to assist them.

Depressive or anxiety disorders appearing in old age could be for a range of reasons, including chronic health issues, feelings of loss from retirement, family, death of a loved one or physical abilities; and general stresses of life, like marital conflict.

Professor of Psychology, Viviana Wuthrich, Director of the Centre for Ageing, Cognition and Wellbeing at Macquarie University, says that the online program was made in consultation with older people to make sure it is easily accessible and user friendly so that users can get the best results possible.

"We know that one in 20 Australian older adults over the age of 65 will have a depressive disorder or an anxiety disorder. However, we know that the number of people who experience anxiety and depression that is distressing, but might not meet the threshold to be a disorder, is actually really high," explains Professor Wuthrich.

"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.

"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."

Professor Wuthrich was really positive about the success of the study and program, as research has shown that older people are really good candidates for psychological treatment.

Additionally, older people don't have so much of an issue with the stigma around seeking help, the main problem is getting a diagnosis.

Many medical professionals, including doctors and psychologists, expect mental health problems in older people and don't actively encourage them to seek treatment.

Professor Wuthrich says once older people are diagnosed with a mental health issue, like depression or anxiety, they are really willing to solve the issue and have better treatment outcomes than other demographics because they are dedicated to fixing the problem.

The new program runs for ten weeks, with ten modules to be worked on which can be accessed at any time by the participant. A clinician will contact the participants once a week for a brief chat about how they are going.

Once a person has finished the program, they can continue accessing the modules and information for another 12 months. If this intervention doesn't work for a participant, they will move on to more intensive interventions, such as hour long face to face consultations with a psychologist.

Professor Wuthrich says it is important to test whether a 'stepped care approach' can best provide enough support to older people with mental health issues, as it can lead to reducing clinician face to face time and lowers the cost of service delivery. This study would be one of the first in Australia to test this method.

"With older adults, there are not many of these resources to draw upon, and that is why we had to develop this particular internet program, so we can actually have this early step in the treatment model," explains Professor Wuthrich. 

"Our estimate is that probably 40 or 50 percent of people that go through, will definitely be completely happy and won't need any further intervention at all. Even for people who are seriously depressed and anxious, we know that we are expecting very profound outcomes for them as well.

"This is a really exciting project, it really is a world first, and so we are collaborating with a very large team, including an international team."

The program is funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and BeyondBlue.

If you are interested in participating in the program and study, you can email stop@mq.edu.au or call 02 9850 8715. To be eligible for the study, you have to be over the age of 65.

To learn more about the program, head to the Macquarie University website.

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