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Social Factors Affecting the Mental Health of Older People

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  • 0:01 A Change in Habits
  • 0:36 Situational Factors
  • 1:58 Labeling & Stigma
  • 3:50 Support to Cope
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, we will look at the relationship between growing older and mental health. We'll focus on the particular issues that older adults tend to encounter and what barriers they face in seeking treatment.

A Change in Habits

Maurice has not been himself lately. His family and friends have noticed that he has been less interested in the things he used to enjoy, such as going to sporting events and playing with his grandchildren. Since turning 70, he feels much more tired than usual and has lost his appetite, preferring to drink more alcohol than he has in the past.

In this lesson, we will look at the many social factors that affect the mental health of an older adult, like Maurice, and why he or she might have trouble accessing treatment.

Situational Factors

Retiring from work can have a significant impact on a person's life and mental well-being. If Maurice had an abrupt end to his work life, such as a layoff, before he was ready to retire, this could be even more difficult.

Financial stressors are another big factor contributing to a person's mental state. For Maurice, who worries about how to pay the bills each month and is uncertain things will get any better, the stress can make it hard to function. On the flip side, even those who are wealthy may experience depression and other challenges due to different situational factors.

If he has experienced the death of a loved one, grieving this loss and adjusting to a reduced social network will be additional challenges. Loss of a spouse or partner in particular can be very hard.

Maurice's fears about his own mortality and medical issues may affect him, too. If he takes on providing care for a loved one, he may also struggle with the responsibility since this can put extra emotional and physical strain on him.

These life events, such as retirement and death of loved ones, along with stressors, such as financial challenges, caregiving responsibilities, and medical problems, are all situational factors affecting Maurice's mental health.

Labeling & Stigma

As the age group with the highest suicide rate, older adults are frequently under-diagnosed. Not everyone that experiences mental health challenges seeks out or is offered treatment. A person such as Maurice, or those around him, may mistakenly view depression as a normal part of getting older. They may not realize that if he pursued treatment, he may have a better time coping with the challenges he faces.

So, why doesn't a person who is suffering seek out assistance? One reason is the stigma associated with asking for help with emotional concerns, particularly for an older adult who may have been raised to conceal these types of feelings. Maurice may have grown up with the idea that a man needs to take care of his own problems without help. He also may have worries about being labeled with a diagnosis, such as depression, anxiety, or another disorder, if he is uncertain what this will mean for his future.

If Maurice uses alcohol or drugs to deal with his emotional pain, he may also need support to recover from this. Since secrecy and feelings of shame are common reactions to a substance abuse problem, Maurice may be very reluctant to address this area of his mental health.

The issue of stigma can also emerge for Maurice if he is a member of a group that has historically experienced prejudice. For instance, if Maurice is a gay man struggling with the loss of a partner, he may be concerned that if he shares his identity with a professional, they may not accept him for who he is. In addition, if he has little money, he may have worries that treatment will be too expensive. These concerns may be additional barriers for those struggling.

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