Expectations of long waiting lists and inadequate support could be preventing older people from accessing mental health services, according to new research from Independent Age.

The national charity surveyed more than 3,000 adults in England of all ages1 and found that in people over 55:

  • 25% believe healthcare professionals are too busy to deal with mental health treatments
  • 20% believe healthcare professionals may not take mental health treatments seriously
  • 58% believe the waiting list to get talking therapy is too long
  • 11% believe healthcare professionals only prescribe medication
  • 6% believe there are no effective treatments for mental health currently available

The charity says that these preconceptions mean people could be missing out on vital support. Worryingly, 20% of respondents in England over 55 with a diagnosed mental health condition hadn’t received any support in the last 5 years.

Of those who had been offered support, more people had been prescribed medication than referred for NHS talking therapies2. While medication can be important for many of those with mental health problems, previous research has revealed that those in later life, and particularly people over 65, have the highest overall recovery rates from talking therapy.

New figures from NHS Digital, released in June 2022, show that just 5.6% of adults referred to Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) between January and March 2022 were over the age of 653. This falls well below the government’s own expected rate of 12%3

Call for evidence

Now, as the government consults on how it and the NHS can help people of any age have better mental health and wellbeing, Independent Age is calling on people in later life to feed their views into the government’s call for evidence.

Morgan Vine, Head of Policy and Influencing at Independent Age, said:

“We know that more than 1 million older people in the UK currently live with moderate or severe anxiety and depression. Inevitably, we have also heard from people about how the pandemic and current cost-of-living crisis has taken its toll on their levels of stress and anxiety.

“Despite this, we continue to see the needs of older people being neglected when it comes to improving their mental health.

“Our findings show that people over 55 do not feel they will be taken seriously or given the right support when it comes to their mental health. Any long-term plan needs to consider how to break down the barriers that stop older people accessing the full range of support options available to them.”

The charity, who will also be responding to the consultation, is calling for older people to have improved access to a range of mental health support, including talking therapies.

They also want to see greater representation of older people in mental health campaigns. This is backed up by their research as 42% of people over 55 in England said there should be more health information campaigns about mental health that target older people.

Morgan Vine continues:

“Mental health problems do not need to be an inevitable part of growing older, and if people get the support they need there is a good chance their mental health and wellbeing can improve.

“That’s why it is crucial that the government hears from as many people as possible to shape and inform their plans. We encourage everyone to join us in responding to the call for evidence, and urge the government to pay attention to the voices of those in later life who too often miss out on vital mental health support.”

Real life experiences

There are many factors that can impact on our mental health as we age, including the death of a lifelong partner, the breakdown of a relationship, financial worries and a deterioration in physical health.

Russell accessed counselling following the death of his wife. He said:

“I’ve never had counselling before but it helps you to deal with things face to face rather than push it away. I found that very useful and I opened up in a way that I wouldn’t have in a group as it was a personal thing. When she’d ask, ‘why did you put it that way or say that?’, I’d realise that it was lots of problems and not just one problem. Bereavement impacts on everything you do.”

* Dorothy reports a deterioration in her mental health due to the cost-of-living crisis. She said:

“I watch the TV and that’s gone up too. I only watch it now in the evenings. I used to do the lottery, but I don’t do that anymore. That’s £4 that I can’t afford. If I had any spare money, I’d buy something like a dress. I can’t do that now. It’s dreadful when you get to my age.

“It never used to be this bad – during the war we had food to eat. We never went without anything. I sit and cry my eyes out sometimes. You just get so low, and you can’t sleep at night.”

The government consultation

The call for evidence is open until Thursday 7July 2022. People can respond online here: Call for evidence: Mental health and wellbeing plan


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Notes to editor

  1. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 3536 adults in England. Fieldwork was undertaken between 25th - 27th May 2022.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all English adults (aged 18+).
  2. People aged over 65 make up over 20% of the population in England, but new figures from NHS Digital, released in June (but for quarter 4 of 2021-22), show that just 5.6% of adults referred to IAPT between January and March 2022 were over the age of 65. This falls well below the government’s own expected rate of 12%.

* Names have been changed

For more information on mental health in later life, see Minds that matter: Understanding mental health in later life | Independent Age

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