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Combating the Mental Health Crisis Among Older Adults

mental health crisis, older americans, older adults
mental health crisis, older americans, older adults

The COVID-19 healthcare crisis has in its wake spawned another crisis that will worsen in the short term and have profound implications going forward: Older adults in America are facing a mental health crisis due to lack of access to Medicare providers and needed services.

The uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant increases in anxiety and depressive disorders among older adults over the past two years. More than 1 in 4 older adults has reported these mental health disorders since April 2020.

We have witnessed a significant increase of mental health conditions in older adults due to the snowballing effects of social isolation and loneliness leading to trauma, anxiety, and depression.

Unfortunately, millions more likely go undiagnosed, as the National Academy of Medicine has found that less than 40 percent of older adults with mental and/or substance use disorders receive treatment.

Making a difference

Why does older adult mental health matter? Mental health and addiction disorders are major impediments to living well in old age. They can cause considerable personal suffering and make it difficult for older people to achieve their full potential in their golden years.  It is a population in critical need of targeted prevention and early intervention services.

Mental illness among older adults is a healthcare problem — it increases poor outcomes and mortality for common medical conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension.

The National Coalition on Mental Health and Aging is dedicated to addressing the needs and promoting the interests of aging Americans with mental health conditions, and addressing the problems that older adults have in accessing needed mental health services. More information can be found at

The workforce needed to address the behavioral health needs of older adults is not adequate today and is projected to be even worse as time goes by.

4 steps to better mental health

The coalition has identified several policy initiatives that Congress can undertake right now to address the needs of older adults with mental health conditions.

  1. Reducing student loan burdens that students carry after graduate school, and implementing measures that would authorize student loan repayment programs for professionals who agree to work in geographic areas that lack access to mental health services.
  2. Developing approaches to increasing the number of providers with geriatric mental health training, including early educational awareness of geriatrics as a potential career path.
  3. Expanding Medicare’s provider network to include mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists, and peer recovery support specialists.
  4. Eliminating regulatory barriers that impede reimbursement for social workers and psychologists who treat Medicare beneficiaries.

The impending “silver tsunami” of mental health and addiction disorders that older adults will be living with will overwhelm our ability — governments, communities, and family caregivers — to address the mental health needs of aging Americans.

With the approaching demographic change, we will witness an unprecedented increase in the number of older adults with mental health and substance use disorders over the coming decades.   

We must make the necessary investments now.

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