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Study finds mental health needs of older adults substantially underserved

November 23, 2004

Individuals aged 65 and older are unlikely to receive needed mental health treatment in the United States, according to a recent national study by researchers at Texas A&M University. Drawing upon data from the 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health, the researchers found that older adults were three times less likely than younger adults (individuals aged 18-64) to receive outpatient mental heath care. Only 2.5% of older adults throughout the nation reported utilizing any outpatient mental health treatment in the year prior to the survey, compared to seven percent of younger adults. Although older adults were found to have lower rates of mental illness than their younger counterparts, even those with serious mental illness (SMI) were highly unlikely to receive treatment. Only one in ten older adults with SMI received any outpatient mental health care, a rate substantially lower than that for younger adults.

While older adults utilized mental health services at substantially low rates, the study also found that those older adults that receive treatment typically benefit considerably from services, as much or greater than all other age groups. "Older adults reported significant benefit from mental health treatment," said Bradley E. Karlin, first author of the study, "refuting public and professional misperception that mental health interventions are less effective with older individuals." The study is one of the few recent investigations of mental health need and service utilization among older adults, and the only known study to provide national data on subjective treatment outcome. Karlin presented the study at the annual scientific meeting of the Gerontological Society of America.

In an article published in the October 2004 issue of Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Karlin and co-author Michael Duffy identify significant barriers to geriatric mental health service use and provide recommendations and directions for improving the current delivery system. "We are failing our nation's elderly population when it comes to meeting their mental health needs, which are often undetected and under-treated" said Karlin. Unfortunately, under-treatment of mental health problems in later life leads to profound social, economic, emotional, and medical costs.

"The results of this study are striking and suggest that greater effort be devoted to increasing mental health service availability and accessibility for elderly individuals. Failure to do so will risk a crisis in geriatric mental health in light of the impending growth of the aging population and future projections of increased prevalence of mental disorders. The good news is that mental health treatments can and do help," said Karlin.
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The Gerontological Society of America

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