What is mental health?

Mental health describes your emotional wellbeing – how you think and feel, and how you deal with everyday stresses. It’s just as important as your physical health. And like your physical health, it can get better or worse as your situation changes.

You may not experience poor mental health as you get older. But if you do, you’re not alone. Mental health problems are very common, although different types affect different numbers of people. Depression is the most common, affecting around one in five older people. Anxiety affects around one in 10 older people.

What can affect your mental health

As you get older, painful events or changes in your situation may affect your mental health and make you more vulnerable to problems, such as depression or anxiety. For example:

  • ill health
  • taking certain medications
  • relationship breakdown
  • bereavement and loss
  • loneliness
  • becoming a carer
  • loss of independence
  • finding it more difficult to do the things you used to do
  • feeling more vulnerable as you get older - at risk of scams, for example
  • loss of daily routine and social contact after retirement
  • money worries
  • moving house, including moving to a new area or moving into a care home.

Sometimes, there might not be an obvious reason for how you're feeling.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic may be worrying too, especially if you can’t see friends or family as usual. If you’re feeling isolated or struggling with your mental health during the pandemic, read our page Staying connected and well when you’re staying at home.

Where to get support

If your negative feelings don’t go away or you’re having trouble coping with them, you may benefit from some help and support. You could:

You could also use the self-help tools from the NHS. Try their mood self-assessment tool or visit Every Mind Matters.

If you feel you can't go on

If you start to think that life isn't worth living or that you want to harm yourself, seek help immediately. Contact your GP or NHS 111, or try calling Samaritans for 24-hour confidential support.

Help to look after yourself

If you’re finding it harder to look after yourself, make sure you’re getting enough support. Ask your local council for a care needs assessment, which will work out what your care needs are. If you need help expressing your views or to get support, you may benefit from an independent advocate. In some situations, you may have a legal right to an advocate.

If you're worried about money

If money worries are troubling you, make sure you’re claiming all the benefits you’re entitled to. Call our Helpline to arrange a benefits check or try our benefits calculator. You could also visit the Mental Health and Money Advice Service for advice and help.

Help with specific problems

If you’re worried about a specific problem or you’ve been through a difficult situation, there may be a specialist organisation that can help. For example:

How to look after your mental health

As well as getting support if you need it, there are things you can do to improve your mental health and help yourself stay well.

Stay connected

Loneliness and isolation can affect your mental health, so try to keep in touch with people. Find ways to increase your social connections, for example, doing a course or taking up a new hobby. Do things you enjoy to help take your mind off your worries.

If you’re looking for more social contact, you could consider signing up for regular calls from an Independent Age befriender. Look at our Get Support section or call our Helpline for details.

Keep active

Staying active can really help your mental health. It can give you more energy, boost your mood and help you to eat and sleep properly. Try to find an activity that works for you, for example:

  • gardening or housework
  • walking or cycling
  • tai chi
  • yoga
  • dancing.

Before starting a new exercise routine, it’s best to talk to your GP, especially if you’re not used to regular exercise.

If you have health or mobility issues, it’s important to stay as active as you can. Exercises can be adapted, so talk to your GP about what types of activities you could try.

Eat a healthy balanced diet

Eating well can have a positive effect on how you feel. Aim for less high-sugar foods and drinks, and avoid drinking too much alcohol. Try to eat a balanced diet, stay hydrated and get at least five portions of fruit or veg a day. Visit NHS Eat Well or talk to your GP for more information.

Help someone else

Helping others can boost your mental health and your social connections. You could try volunteering, which is a great way to meet new people and help a cause you care about. Find something that suits your skills and interests. Try looking at:

  • charities – for example, Independent Age looks for volunteers to make regular friendship calls, see our Get involved section
  • do-it.org for volunteer opportunities in your area.

Some volunteering opportunities may be limited during the coronavirus pandemic to reduce face-to-face meetings. But you may be available to volunteer online or over the phone.

Go outside

If you can, spending time in nature for just a couple of hours a week can really help your health and wellbeing. You could try an ecotherapy programme, which involves doing outdoor activities like gardening, conservation or arts and crafts. Contact your local Mind or ask your GP if there is one nearby that they can refer you to.

Get enough sleep

If you’re having problems with sleeping, try changing your routine. Our webpage Getting a good night's sleep has advice on how to develop healthier sleeping habits and where to get help if you need it. 

You could also learn relaxation techniques and breathing exercises to help you to feel calmer. You can find breathing exercises for stress on the NHS website.

Next steps

Talk to your GP or someone you trust about how you're feeling.

Read our healthy living section for more ways to look after your physical health.

Increase your social connections - try signing up for regular calls or volunteer with Independent Age.

Learn more about improving your mental health on the NHS website.

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