Quarter of adults think poor mental health is normal part of ageing – report

Around a quarter of adults believe experiencing poor mental health is a normal part of ageing, and almost half of older people are not aware of talking therapies, research has found.

A survey by Independent Age found that 46% of people aged 65 and over were not aware of the option of NHS talking therapies, and just one in eight believes older people are given the mental health support they need.

Three quarters of older people said they have experienced significant anxiety or low mood at least once since turning 65, with 10% saying they feel this frequently or all the time.

But just 12% said they had spoken to their GP about low mood, anxiety or mental health problems since turning 65, according to the survey of 2,316 adults, including 774 people aged 65 and over.

Mental health problems can be compounded by grief, with the charity estimating that up to 98,000 older people experienced a partner bereavement between March and July – almost one-and-a-half times as many as in a typical year.

Talking therapies to treat issues such as depression and anxiety are available through NHS England’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme, commonly after GP referral.

People aged 65 and over make up just 6% of NHS talking therapy patients in England, despite accounting for almost a fifth (18%) of the UK population.

The survey, conducted in July, also found that 24% of adults believe poor mental health or low mood is a normal part of getting older.

Independent Age chief executive Deborah Alsina said: “This is a sobering and upsetting thought, showing an acceptance among too many people that feeling depressed or anxious is an inevitable part of growing older.

“At Independent Age we don’t believe this or want anyone to feel they have to ‘put up with’ these emotions as they grow older.

“In reality, the evidence actually tells us that mental health problems can be treated regardless of age, and that people in later life have very good recovery rates when it comes to receiving certain treatments, like talking therapy.”

NHS England must review the barriers to older people accessing therapy, and use targeted messaging to make people aware of the different services available, she said.

A greater understanding of grief would enable a better response to older people’s needs, the charity added.

Its report, Minds That Matter, notes that despite the low rates of IAPT referral and low levels of awareness, people in later life often respond well.

Data from the programme for 2019-20 shows that people aged 65+ had an overall recovery rate of 64%, compared to 50% for people aged 18-64.

The charity’s research found that a third (35%) of older people felt uncomfortable or unsure about discussing their mood or mental health with others.

Their reasons included it being a private matter (39%), not wanting to worry anyone (25%) and there being no point because there is nothing anyone can do (23%).

Pauline, 75, told the charity: “Many people of my mother’s generation would have had fathers that were in the First World War. They came back home as soldiers and expected their children to behave, keep quiet and get on and do as they were told.

“People carry these instructions through their lives. The pain and distress were brought back to family and absorbed by them.”

An NHS spokeswoman said: “Older people can access talking therapies in the same way as any other age group, including through self-referral and while the NHS is rolling out post-Covid support, it has also joined forces with Age UK to encourage older people to access treatment for mental health conditions and boost the numbers getting the support they need.

“Depression and anxiety should not be seen as a normal part of ageing and seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness, so anyone out there who is feeling down and needs help, can and should get it from the NHS and as evidence shows it can be treated.”