Stigma Impacts Older Adults With Mental Illness

Jun 5, 2019

Mental health concerns are becoming more prevalent in older people, yet the stigma of mental illness often prevents them from seeking help. Baby boomers are aging and this population group is exploding—it’s estimated that by 2030, one in five U.S. residents will be over 65—so this issue is important to address.

Life events that can trigger mental health challenges include the loss of loved ones, family moving away, drop in socio-economic status with retirement, chronic pain, reduced mobility, or moving to a care facility.

The CDC estimates that 20% of people age 55 years or older experience some type of mental health concern. The most common conditions include anxiety, severe cognitive impairment, and mood disorders (such as depression or bipolar disorder). Mental health issues are often implicated as a factor in cases of suicide.

According to Cynthia Sweet, Case Manager, Erie County Senior Services, depression and anxiety are the leading concerns in the older adult population in Erie County. “Women seem to have a slightly easier time talking about depression,” Sweet said. “Men have traditionally been conditioned to keep feelings to themselves and often have a difficult time talking about this topic. In the clients I see, more than half are on some type of medication for depression.”

Sweet feels many older people do not seek help because of the negative stigma connected with seeking help.

New mental health diagnoses as well as management of ongoing issues are two distinct challenges for older people and their loved ones, according Ann Monroe, master trainer for the Reframing Aging Initiative National Project and originating president of the Health Foundation of Western and Central New York, “10,000 people turn 65 every day – yet society is not prepared to provide proper care,” Monroe said. “As people age, their medications and treatment may need to be tweeked. Geriatric psychiatry is rare but the needs are overwhelming. Geriatric care in general offers lower pay and is not perceived as challenging work.”

Monroe also said that depression is often misdiagnosed or written off as dementia. Therefore, there is a high percentage of untreated depression among older adults.

In addition to the stigma of mental illness, older adults often suffer negative effects of stereotypes and exclusion.

“One of the things we see is a high rate of depression as older people are excluded from social circles,” Monroe said. “Experience is disregarded in favor of youth and there is a lack of respect and recognition that older people can contribute. Social isolation has a significant impact on older people.”

According to Sweet, anxiety can be just as debilitating as depression and is not addressed as often. “When combined with impairments in hearing, vision and mobility, life can become highly stressful,” Sweet said. “Anxiety is not as well diagnosed or treated with medication because there has not been as much training and awareness devoted to it. And anxiety and depression very often exist together,” she said.

Sweet also cites the acute shortage of appropriate providers a significant problem.

“People who have been treated for conditions such as mood disorders and schizophrenia and work with professionals on a regular basis can function very well independently,” Sweet said. “Unfortunately, this is often not the case since there are few care providers in the area and those in rural areas often have major problems getting to a provider.”

Erie County Senior Services has been screening for mental health issues on general assessment, but recently added in-depth screening and a goal-oriented method to help clients with setting goals to begin doing things that used to bring them pleasure. Other community agencies also provide services to help older adults.

Jewish Family Services provides mental health services with individual counseling, Catholic Charities has Project Hope, which helps adults at risk of being homeless, and the Erie County Department of Mental Health has the SPOA program, which is a single point of entry for adults needing mental health services.  

The Supportive Housing Programs can provide housing for adults who have difficulty living on their own.  The SHP providers include Transitional Services, Inc., Living Opportunities of DePaul, Lake Shore Behavioral Health, Spectrum Human Services, Horizon Human Services, Southern Tier Environments for Living, Housing Options Made Easy, Buffalo Federation of Neighborhood Centers, Cazenovia Recovery Systems, Restoration Society, and WNY Veteran’s Housing Coalition.

Join the Conversation educates members of our community about the stigma experienced by people of all ages, encouraging them to find their voice and get the help they need to recover.


of people age 55 years or older experience some type of mental health concern.

How to Help an Older Adult with Depression

  • Listen with love and compassion
  • Invite your loved one out
  • Schedule regular social activities
  • Plan and prepare healthy meals
  • Encourage the person to follow through with treatment
  • Make sure all medications are taken as instructed
  • Watch for suicide warning signs
  • Seek immediate professional help if you suspect that your loved one is thinking about suicide

“Many older people do not seek help because of the negative stigma connected with seeking help.”

Source: CDC

Self Help Tips

Tip 1: Find ways to stay engaged

  • Seek out face-to-face connection
  • Ways to feel connected and engaged
  • Get out into the world
  • Volunteer your time
  • Join a depression support group
  • Take care of a pet
  • Learn a new skill
  • Create opportunities to laugh

Tip 2: Adopt healthy habits

  • Move your body
  • Eat to support your mood
  • Support quality sleep
  • Spend time in sunlight
  • Join a depression support group
  • Take care of a pet
  • Learn a new skill
  • Create opportunities to laugh

Tip 3: Know when to seek professional help



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