Most of us have been quite obsessed with our physical health these last two years. Like me, you can probably list all the possible symptoms of Covid, the signs of long-Covid, the possible reactions to the vaccines, the rates of illness among older adults, and the reasons why some people should be extra cautious about exposure to the disease. But what about our mental health? It has certainly been impacted as well by the pandemic and more recently the war in Ukraine. Are we, the elders of society, more willing to talk about mental health today than we were in the past? Are we as willing to seek out help for our mental state as we are for our physical conditions?
To answer some of these questions about mental health in older adults, I turned to eHealth, a nationwide insurance broker representing most of the large Medicare plan carriers in the U.S., including Medicare Advantage carriers. Earlier in 2022 they conducted a large survey of Medicare beneficiaries, age 65 and older, who had purchased a Medicare plan from them. The focus of the survey was Americans’ perspectives on mental health care. The questions they asked of the 3800 respondents centered around three areas: 1) how important mental health care is to them; 2) how they feel about mental health in general; and 3) whether they have received mental health services.
One of eHealth’s key findings surprised them: many seniors don’t know about Medicare’s mental health benefits. When queried in the survey, a full sixty-one percent didn’t know that Medicare provided any mental health benefits at all. One unfortunate consequence of this lack of knowledge is that seniors who know they need help with their emotional/mental condition do not seek it because they fear the cost and don’t believe their insurance will cover even part of it.
eHealth’s survey findings also revealed that mental health care benefits are important to older adults. Sixty-four percent of respondents said mental health benefits are just as important as other forms of medical care and more than half (53%) have received mental health care in the past. Seventy-two percent reported that mental health benefits are something they look for when choosing a health insurance plan.
Is it the Pandemic?
The pandemic appeared to play a major role in the survey respondents’ willingness to seek out mental health care. Forty-eight percent reported they were “very willing” to seek mental health care today. This compared with 35% before the Covid-19 pandemic and 29% ten years ago. Thirty-seven percent reported that they were “not so willing” or “not willing at all” to seek mental health care ten years ago.
Increased isolation or sense of loneliness, due to the pandemic, was reported by 39% of survey respondents. Seven percent overall and nine percent of women reported that they received mental health care for the very first time since the start of the pandemic. Close to one in six reported losing a loved one due to Covid-19.
Are We Getting Help?
According to the study, two-thirds of older adults are as willing to talk about mental health issues as they are about other medical conditions. Interestingly, though, half of the respondents said they have never had a conversation about mental health with their primary care doctors. Those results were skewed quite a bit by age, however. Those in the 65 to 70 age-bracket were most likely (53%) to have had a mental health discussion with their primary care doc, while those in their 80s reported far fewer (34%) of these conversations. It seems like attitudes about mental health are changing with the generations and the circumstances.
At least a third of seniors have received either mental health counseling or prescription medications. Thirty-six percent of older adults say they have participated in individual therapy; thirty-three percent have been prescribed drugs to improve or support their mental health. Ten percent have participated in some kind of group therapy.
When asked about their sense of wellbeing today, almost 25% of the older adults who responded to the survey reported they are currently experiencing anxiety. Many others say they have lost interest in things that used to bring them joy or that they are currently feeling depressed and lonely. Some are experiencing grief, predominantly due to the loss of a loved one. The biggest culprits named for their lack of wellbeing are financial stress, politics, and worry about Covid. And it’s important to note that this survey was administered several weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.
The results of this survey do not bode well for the mental state of older adults in our society. However, it very likely mirrors the state of all adults in the U.S. and beyond today. Most mental health counselors and therapists I know are busier than they would like to be and are turning away patients on a weekly basis. Is it due to actual events or the 24-hour news cycle available on every media platform we can access? Would we be happier people if we didn’t instantly know about every horrific detail of life on earth? The evidence over time suggests we would, but since we can’t turn back the clock we will need to find ways to cope with our environment in its present form and seek out help for our mental state when we need it.