World Mental Health Day is observed on October 10th each year. Though awareness of mental health struggles has become increasingly prevalent in recent years, mental illness in older adults often goes under-diagnosed.

The data

A 2012 study from the Institute on Medicine found that approximately one in five older adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness, substance use disorder, or both. And according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), that could equate to approximately 15 million people by 2030.

Moreover, a telephone survey of nearly 10,000 adult households, published in 2003 in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, reinforced the likelihood that older adults are underreporting their mental health issues and symptoms. The survey revealed that half of adults over age 65 with probable mental illness were notably less likely to be receiving any mental health treatment than younger adults.

Referrals for mental health care are less likely with older adults, which is why raising awareness that mental health issues aren’t just a normal part of aging is so crucial.

And it’s not just that symptoms are underreported. Dr. Susan W. Lehmann, clinical director of the division of geriatric psychiatry and neuropsychiatry and director of the Geriatric Psychiatry Day Hospital at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine told US News that adults over 65 “were much less likely to be asked by their primary care physician if they felt tense or anxious and were much less likely to be referred by their primary care physician for mental health specialty care.”

Perception, receipt, and referrals for mental health care and counseling are all less likely to occur in older adults than in middle-aged or younger adults, according to the aforementioned survey, which is why raising awareness that mental health issues aren’t just a normal part of aging is so crucial.

Mind-body connection

Mental health has an impact on physical health, and vice versa.

If an older adult suffers from heart disease, they are prone to higher rates of depression than those who are healthy, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Yet, this critical mind-body connection is too frequently swept under the rug, with a greater emphasis placed on the physical — the more concrete or axiomatic symptoms.

Again, with growing awareness, especially in the younger population, perhaps older adults are being repudiated: “If a young person is not sleeping, has no appetite, no energy, the first thing I think of is depression. An 85-year-old with those same things, depression is not going to be high on my list,” Lehmann explained in the same interview. “Too often, changes in mood, interest, activity level and personality are incorrectly attributed to aging, and the possibility of a mental illness is not considered.”


To bring awareness to the reality that mental illness affects individuals of all ages, we’ve put together a list of resources for Americans over 50. Taking the first step to acknowledge or voice your struggle can be exceedingly difficult; however, it’s our hope that this list will open up the conversation and remind you that your overall health and well-being is always a priority at any age.

  1. SAMSHA-HHSA Center for Integrated Health Solutions
  2. The American Psychological Association
  3. Healthy IDEAS (Identifying Depression Empowering Activities for Seniors)
  4. Program to Encourage Active, Rewarding Lives for Seniors (PEARLS)
  5. Prevention and Management of Alcohol Problems in Older Adults
  6. Brief Intervention and Treatment for Elders (BRITE)
  7. The Trans Lifeline
  8. RAD Remedy
  9. To Write Love On Her Arms
  10. Project Semicolon
  11. This Is My Brave
  12. National Eating Disorders Association Helpline
  13. National Sexual Assault Hotline
  14. Adult Protective Services and Elder Abuse Hotline

Please note: This is by no means an exhaustive list, rather a starting point for helpful resources and guidance.

If you’re feeling suicidal or know anyone who is, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the U.S. is at 1-800-273-8255.

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