Experts Urge Lawmakers to Help Ease Growing Mental Health Crisis in Seniors

Times Staff Writer

Senior citizens have high rates of mental illness and the country’s highest suicide rate when compared with other age groups, a panel of mental health experts told a congressional committee Thursday.

Appearing before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, the experts said poor access to mental health care, inadequate training for primary care physicians and even apathy among seniors was contributing to a growing mental health crisis among those older than 65.

Seniors account for a fifth of all suicides -- many by firearms; nearly 40% show signs of depression, but only about 3% seek psychological help, the experts testified.

“I think you could probably characterize the situation as a national embarrassment,” said psychologist David Shern, president and chief executive of the National Mental Health Assn., an advocacy group in Alexandria, Va.

Fewer than half of all adults with symptoms of depression are screened accurately by their primary care physicians, he said, urging changes in clinical and training practices.


He also called for more research funding to study suicide risks among the elderly -- a view that all of the panel’s experts endorsed.

Dr. David C. Steffens, a geriatric psychiatrist at Duke University Medical Center, said that when money gets tight, some seniors stop taking antidepressants rather than give up medications to treat physical ailments.

But, he added, several projects looking into innovative approaches to seniors’ mental health care showed promise.

In one study conducted in New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, depression care managers -- usually nurses or social workers -- worked with physicians to identify patients who showed signs of depression and follow up on their care.

Steffens said participants in this program were less likely to think about suicide than people in a control group.

In another study, covering five states, clinical specialists in depression worked with patients in a primary care clinic, reducing their depression symptoms by as much as half when compared with patients who did not receive specialist care, Steffens said.

As the hearing ended, Sen. Gordon H. Smith (R-Ore.), the committee chairman, said that improving mental health services for seniors should be a top priority.

“There really should be no higher issue for us in Congress than to fix this,” he said.