Mental health conditions aren’t as easy to understand as physical ailments. Because they typically don’t have an observable effect on the body, some people struggle to accept mental illnesses as real illnesses. Even when we do recognize them as serious and important problems, speaking about them openly can feel uncomfortable. Mental health is personal, so it’s often kept hidden. Although we’ve seen great progress toward destigmatizing mental health issues, the topic is still highly stigmatized among most older adults. For seniors to receive the support they need, it’s important for everyone to take steps toward accepting and normalizing conversations about mental health.
In the last 10 or 20 years, the stigma surrounding mental health has started to decline. Today, many young people are very open about going to therapy, and it’s common to hear younger generations discussing depression or anxiety as easily as you may talk about a common physical ailment. As the stigma disappears, people feel less alone and less alienated in their experiences.
Mental Health and Aging
Seniors are just as likely as younger adults to be affected by conditions like depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and thought disorders. In some cases, these conditions are lifelong challenges that continue into retirement. Symptoms may come and go over the years, but without consistent mental health treatment, a disorder may worsen as the person ages.
Mental health issues can develop later in life, too. Certain experiences that are common for seniors may cause depression, anxiety, or other disorders to appear when an individual had never struggled with mental health before. For example, some seniors feel like they’ve lost their identity after retirement or after their children have grown up. Social isolation can lead to serious mental health symptoms as well. Physical health problems and loss of independence also can contribute to mental illness in older adults.
Why Senior Mental Health Is Stigmatized
The stigmatization of mental illnesses is a complicated and widespread issue. It’s very difficult to change far-reaching societal or cultural beliefs, so removing the stigma will be a gradual process.
One major reason we face this stigma is that most people simply don’t speak about mental health. When everyone keeps their thoughts and feelings to themselves, people may go their whole lives not realizing how many of their peers deal with the same symptoms. This also prevents people from learning about disorders that they don’t personally experience, which means they may have some misguided beliefs about mental health.
This is a difficult vicious cycle to break free from. Because people believe that you shouldn’t speak about mental health, the idea that mental illness is rare or shameful continues. Then, this stigma prevents people from talking about their experiences for fear of being judged, which perpetuates the belief that mental health should be kept private.
Media may play a role in mental health stigma, too. The vast majority of people with mental health disorders are not dangerous in any way, but media tends to overlook these cases in favor of more extreme stories. When we see news reports connecting violent crimes to mental illness, it promotes the idea that everyone with mental disorders should be avoided. Movies, television shows, and books that feature villains with mental illnesses have a similar effect.
It’s incredibly difficult to change your understanding of something when you’ve held the same beliefs for your whole life. Younger generations seem to be having an easier time overcoming the stigma because they’re still in the process of forming and shaping their worldview. Most seniors, on the other hand, have been set in their ways for a long time. If you’ve always viewed mental health as a private topic that should never be discussed, changing your perspective may take a lot of consideration and self-reflection.
How We Can Remove the Stigma of Mental Health Issues
Destigmatizing mental illnesses takes a combined effort from a widespread group of people. Here are four steps you can take to challenge the stigma in yourself or a loved one:
1. Don’t ignore the challenges of aging.
There are plenty of things to look forward to as you age, but growing older also brings about some challenges. When seniors are told that they should love every moment of their older years, they may feel like they aren’t supposed to express sadness, stress, anger, or any other negative emotions. They might bottle up their feelings and avoid talking about anything in their life that worries them.
By acknowledging the harder aspects of aging, you can open the door for an honest conversation about mental health. Allow yourself or your loved one to express their anxiety or frustration, and remember that these struggles are common even if others don’t talk about them often.
2. Listen without judgment.
Fear of judgment is a common reason seniors avoid talking about mental health. Some people have an underlying belief that a mental health disorder makes you weak, and older adults may not want to show a vulnerable side of themselves. By listening without judgment, you can send the message that mental health issues are common and that they don’t make anyone a bad or abnormal person.
3. Be careful with your language.
Even if you mean no harm by the language you use, certain words, phrases, or ideas can contribute to the stigma surrounding mental health. For example, if you call someone “crazy” or “psycho” in a joking manner, a friend or family member may worry that you’d think of them in the same way if they open up about their disorder.
Making some subtle changes to the way you speak about mental health can have a big impact. One of the best ways to adjust your language is to use person-centered terminology. For instance, instead of speaking about a “bipolar person,” try to say, “a person with bipolar disorder.” This emphasizes their humanity before their disorder, and it avoids using their disorder as a single identifier of who they are.
4. Normalize reaching out for support.
Talking candidly about therapy, support groups, or other mental health services is an excellent way to fight the stigma. The more open we are about seeking support, the less shame or embarrassment seniors will feel about reaching out for help. People attend therapy for a wide variety of reasons, and it can help you make great progress in your life.
Mental health has been stigmatized for a long time, but by being conscious about how you speak and act, you can do your part to normalize the conversation. Everyone struggles sometimes, and when people understand that they’re not alone, they’re more likely to get the help that they need.
Blue Moon Senior Counseling provides mental health services for older adults. If you or a loved one is dealing with a mental health issue, we’re here to help. Reach out to us today to learn more about our practice.