The Pennsylvania Departments of Aging and Human Services recently joined the Pennsylvania Association of Area Agencies on Aging (P4A) on the fifth Annual Older Adult Mental Health Awareness Day to spotlight the mental health services needs of an often overlooked, underserved population: older adults.
“As Pennsylvania’s older adult population continues to grow and becomes more diverse, we need to improve resources and supports to meet the mental health needs of this population, which tends to be more socially isolated than other age groups. We know that social isolation adversely impacts older adults and can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression that can negatively affect their physical and mental health status and result in greater risk of mortality,” said Secretary of Aging Robert Torres. “We also need to eliminate any stigma and myths surrounding older adults and mental health, which may prevent them from seeking help.”
Sec. Torres noted that one common myth is that depression is a normal, inevitable part of aging. However, when faced with depression, individuals can often be treated successfully, allowing them to live with a better sense of mental health and well-being. A second mental health myth of aging is that suicide is only an issue among young people. “Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates are highest among men 65 and older, a clear indication of unmet mental health needs in the older adult community,” said Sec. Torres.
Especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has never been more important for Pennsylvania to invest in initiatives that provide support for vulnerable Pennsylvanians. Governor Tom Wolf’s budget proposal calls for $36.6 million increase in county mental health base funds as well as an additional $40 million in one-time federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to support efforts to provide critical behavioral health services.
Additionally, last year, to help address depression, Pennsylvania became the first state to independently train and administer Healthy IDEAS (Identifying Depression & Empowering Activities for Seniors), an evidence-based depression self-management program. This program brings together the state’s aging network and the mental/behavioral health community to help improve the identification of symptoms of depression among older adults and to learn how to properly manage depression. The Department of Aging leads this initiative and 14 Area Agencies on Aging have adopted the program so far.
“The Department of Human Services facilitates access to mental health care for Pennsylvanians covered by Medical Assistance through the Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Our goal is to assure that behavioral health services and supports recognize and accommodate the unique needs of older adults,” said Acting Secretary Meg Snead. “The past two years have brought on difficult times for many, and now more than ever we need to prioritize our commitment to our aging community, so no one has to go through these feelings alone. Check on those you love as signs of depression or loneliness can go unnoticed, be aware of the many resources available, and help them know that while the world can feel isolating, they are not alone.”
“The Pennsylvania Association of Area Agencies on Aging and its AAA members have long recognized the need for older adults to have easy access to mental health and substance use disorder services,” said P4A Executive Director Rebecca May-Cole. “The AAAs see the need at all levels and types of service delivery such as assessment, care management, protective services, caregiver support programs, housing, transportation, and meal delivery. Barriers to access are many, and some are very complex. They include stigma, denial, lack of information/knowledge, personal financial limitations, regulatory barriers, limited funding, waiting lists, and biases about older adults. The good news is that systems exist to address these barriers. We need to work together to create better linkages so that older Pennsylvanians can get access to services.”
“As a country we recognize that the population is aging due to advancements in healthcare and technology. With this comes the reality that the mental health needs and services available to this population must also evolve,” said Kristen Houser, DHS’ Deputy Secretary for the Office of Mental Health & Substance Abuse (OMHSAS). “Mental health is health care and OMHSAS is working to educate both the individuals receiving the services in our facilities along with the healthcare workers to address the growing mental health needs, substance use disorders, and other behavioral needs of the aging population.”
Whether dealing with social isolation or mental health issues, older adults should know they are not alone. Area Agencies on Aging and the following resources and services are available for support:
*Department of Human Services’ mental health support and referral helpline, Persevere PA: 1-855-284-2494 (TTY: 724-631-5600);
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255);
- Línea Nacional de Prevención del Suicidio: 1-888-628-9454;
- Crisis Text Line: Text PA to 741741;
- Veteran Crisis Line: 1-800-273-TALK (8255);
- Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990;
- The Trevor Project Lifeline (LGBTQ): 1-866-488-7386Text “Start” to 678-678;
- Trans Helpline: 877-565-8860;
- PA Link: 1-800-753-8827.