Mental health problems or mental illness should not be considered an inevitable consequence of aging, and age should not limit access to quality mental health services. Yet this is often the case in Canada. Community-based services and primary care providers must better help seniors successfully manage and treat the different mental health problems they may face.
An unprecedented population shift
By 2041, seniors will have the highest rate of mental illness in Canada. One in four seniors already lives with a mental health problem or mental illness, and as this population grows so too will the need for mental health services. As Canadians live longer, our approach to mental health must account for the number of seniors living with mental illness and dementia. It requires a shift from acute, hospital-based care to a more cost-effective community-based model, one that supports seniors and caregivers in the places they live.
Multiple levels of stigma
People with a mental health problem or mental illness often experience stigma and discrimination when attempting to access services and supports. Seniors face overlapping stigma: the stigma of living with a mental illness, as well as the stigma of being older. Further public awareness and education are needed to combat the negative stereotypes associated with aging and mental health problems or mental illness.
A ripple effect
Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease are likely to affect every family in Canada in some way. If left unaddressed, the increasing pressure on the healthcare system will have significant social and economic impacts. And many caregivers are seniors themselves, so addressing their mental health concerns now will help improve the quality of life for countless more Canadians as they grow older.
The MHCC’s Mental Health Strategy for Canada identifies seniors’ mental health as an action priority and makes several recommendations for improvement. The MHCC is doing its part by leading a number of projects to help ensure older Canadians get the support they need to achieve and maintain their best possible mental health, and not experience the problem of stigma.
Guidelines for seniors’ mental health
The MHCC is getting its Guidelines for Comprehensive Mental Health Services for Older Adults in Canada into the hands of people who can put them to use. Developed in 2011, this resource offers several recommendations to support policy makers and service providers in planning, developing, and implementing a mental health service system that can effectively respond to the unique needs of an aging population.
Taking a comprehensive approach
Informed by seniors themselves, the Guidelines also incorporate the values and perspectives of families, caregivers, mental health service providers, and advocacy groups. The recommendations offer a broad range of service approaches. To help facilitate their adoption, the MHCC made an interactive version of the Guidelines available, featuring more than 100 additional links to external resources, including toolkits for service providers. The MHCC also delivers workshops at national conferences to promote awareness and education.
Evaluating what works
To assess policies, programs and services affecting seniors’ mental health, the MHCC endorses the use of the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens. This toolkit supports the assessment of existing services using the principles outlined in the Guidelines. As well, use of the toolkit will mean that the values important to seniors are considered during service planning and delivery. As an analytical framework, it allows organizations and all levels of government to identify and address unintended negative effects of their mental health programs.
Establishing effective services and supports to address the mental health needs of seniors is possible — a substantial amount of evidence has shown what works and what can be done. By continuing to promote seniors’ mental health and by collaborating with other leaders in this area, the MHCC is helping to ensure that all Canadians will have greater access to the help they need as they grow older.
Chronic disease correlation
Many chronic diseases that are typically experienced later in life have correlations with mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression. In fact, major depression occurs in about 40 per cent of senior patients who have experienced an acute stroke. Meanwhile, some older adults can go their entire lives with an undiagnosed mental illness and never receive treatment. Others experience the first onset of mental health disorders in later life.
The journey is beginning
Investing in continuing care is crucial to shifting the way we address seniors’ mental health problems or mental illness. Services, supports, and treatments provided by long-term caregivers are already available beyond the hospital environment. However, these community-based outreach and primary care services for seniors require further support and better collaboration between services to sustain their efforts in addressing the mental health needs of seniors.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) created a number of resources to to help ensure older Canadians get the support they need to achieve and maintain their mental health and wellness. Click on the links below for more information.