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It is estimated that 18 to 25 percent of elders are in need of mental health care for depression, anxiety, psychosomatic disorders, adjustment to aging, and schizophrenia. Yet, few seem to receive proper care and treatment for these mental illnesses. It is also a distressing reality that the suicide rate of the elderly stands at an alarming 21 percent, the highest of all age groups in the United States. Every day 17 older individuals kill themselves.
Given such statistics, why are millions of our nation's elderly deprived of adequate mental health care? There are numerous factors accounting for this apparent state of apathy and indifference towards the unmet mental health needs of the elderly.
Generally, the first person elders turn to for help with problems that require mental health treatment is their primary care physician. Many of these physicians have limited training in the care and management of geriatric patients. This makes the current lack of adequate mental health care particularly insidious because neither the elderly person nor the health care provider may recognize the symptoms. In no other age group is the combination and interrelationship of physical, social, and economic problems as significant as with the elderly. Elders tend to assume that complaints such as sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, and mood differences are related to physical problems. This tendency is reinforced by physicians, who often attribute symptoms to the aging process. Medical practice today does not allow time for detailed medical and social history for a more accurate diagnosis.
A 1990 study of elderly suicides in the Chicago area found that 20 percent of the suicide victims had seen their primary care physicians within 24 hours of their suicide, 41 percent within seven days, 84 percent within 30 days. This data greatly underscores the importance of early detection by health professionals and caregivers.
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