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Breaking the age barrier:ageism in mental health
Photography by Getty Images on Unsplash

October 2023 – George Lee

Theme: Happiness

Breaking the age barrier:
ageism in mental health

Reading Becca Levy’s book, Breaking the Age Code, I came across a chapter that angered me – the one titled ‘Later-Life Mental Health Growth.’ In it, Dr. Levy highlights the hidden issue of ageism in mental health and its detrimental impact on older individuals’ well-being. The belief that older people are less suitable for therapy due to perceived mental rigidity and low expectations for improvement is deeply entrenched in the healthcare system. This story sheds light on the urgency of combating ageism in mental health, unlocking the potential of therapy for us as we age, and the necessity for innovation in mental health support for all ages. 

Photography by Getty Images on Unsplash

A survey of 700 psychologists and therapists revealed a concerning picture. The survey found that many mental health professionals consider older patients less suitable for therapy, based on stereotypes that associate conditions like lethargy and depression with normal ageing. These biases lead to missed treatment opportunities and reduced quality of life for older individuals. 

Dr. Dan Plotkin, a 70-year-old psychiatrist with over 40 years of experience working with older patients, emphasises the critical need for services tailored to older people. I was shocked to read that up to 1 in 10 individuals over 60 may experience major depression, yet as many as 90 percent do not receive adequate treatment. Those who do receive treatment are typically prescribed antidepressants by their doctors with talk therapy seldom considered, never mind offered. 

Research on individuals aged 60 to 79 revealed that the primary obstacle to seeking assistance is the misconception that mental health decline is an inevitable aspect of growing older (which, in reality, it is not).

If healthcare professionals doubt the effectiveness of therapy as we age, it’s understandable that a sizable portion of the general population shares this skepticism. Research on individuals aged 60 to 79 revealed that the primary obstacle to seeking assistance is the misconception that mental health decline is an inevitable aspect of growing older (which, in reality, it is not). 

These perceptions in healthcare professionals (and many of us) perpetuate the misconception that mental health decline is a normal part of ageing, discouraging older individuals from seeking help. Dr. Plotkin argues that older individuals can respond remarkably well to therapy due to their accumulated life experiences and wisdom, highlighting the transformative potential of later-life mental health care. 

An older woman being comforted by a younger woman

Photography by Ben White on Unsplash

Case studies illustrate the potential.

In his article for the AARP Dr. Plotkin shares a few inspiring case studies that highlight the potential of therapy for older individuals: 

Marci, 59, was initially diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but her neurologist referred her for ‘mood swings.’ Upon further examination, it became clear that her mood swings were, in fact, panic attacks stemming from her denial of her illness’s reality. Through therapy, she learned to accept her condition, resulting in significant improvements in her tremors and a reduction in panic attacks. 

Bob, 65, and his wife began couples therapy with skepticism. However, as he transitioned into individual therapy, his chronic anxiety diminished. Bob emerged from therapy with an enhanced sense of personal agency, liberation, and comfort in his own skin. 

Gladys, 85, lost her husband to COVID-19 and was unable to attend his funeral. Overwhelmed by grief and anxiety, she felt like a ‘stranger’ to herself. Therapy provided her with the realisation that she could cope and carry on even on her own. 

In each of these cases that Dr. Plotkin introduced, he believes these people experienced successful outcomes, partially owing to the advantages of their age. Infact studies, Dr. Plotkin shares, show that ageing is associated with increased openness and improved emotional management, which can contribute to the positive progress that we make in therapy as we get older. 

A man with his head in his hands

Photography by Getty Images on Unsplash

Despite ageism’s prevalence in mental health, many medical schools lack comprehensive education on mental health issues in later life. This educational gap perpetuates stereotypes and leaves healthcare professionals ill-prepared to address older patients’ unique needs. 

To combat ageism in mental health, medical schools must prioritise courses on mental health in later life in their curriculum. These courses can help students understand the complexities of ageing, the significance of addressing mental health concerns, and the potential for positive outcomes through therapy at all stages of our life 

By embracing innovation we can create a brighter future in mental health care that benefits individuals of all ages.

In conclusion, addressing ageism in mental health care is paramount for ensuring equitable and effective support for individuals of all ages. To achieve this goal, we must tackle key questions such as challenging ageist attitudes within the healthcare system, harnessing the wisdom and life experiences of older patients to enhance mental health treatment plans, and directing research and resources towards tailored interventions for older individuals. Encouraging intergenerational interactions and dialogue also plays a vital role in reducing ageism and fostering empathy among healthcare professionals and the public.  

 However, it is essential to consider broader questions of innovation, including how to make mental health services accessible and effective for diverse age groups, using technology for those facing physical limitations, geographical barriers, cost and engage community support networks to enhance mental well-being across the lifespan. Dr. Dan Plotkin’s work underscores the potential for older individuals to thrive in therapy when age-related biases are confronted. By addressing these questions and embracing innovation, we can create a brighter future in mental health care that benefits individuals of all ages. We need it! 

More Information

Further reading.

If you’re in crisis and need to talk to someone right now, there are many helplines staffed by trained people ready to listen. You can find a list of UK numbers here. They won’t judge you, and could help you make sense of what you’re feeling.

You can buy Dr. Becca Levy’s book and find out more about her work here.

You can read the research exploring age views of psychologists and therapists here. 

You can read the research about how psychologists and therapists view depression as standard aspects of ageing here. 

You can read the research showing rates of depression in the over 60s here. 

You can read Dr. Dan Plotkin’s AARP article here.

You can read the study showing how ageing is associated with increased openness in how we react to mental health programmes here 



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