October 7th marks the launch of our new report Minds that matter: Understanding mental health in later life. In this report we look at the different elements that affect older people’s mental health – the things that protect it, the challenges they face and the support that is available.

Mental health issues can impact people of any age and at any stage of life. However, people in later life who experience common issues like anxiety or depression are often overlooked. We want to bring attention and awareness to these experiences and ensure the right help is made available.

A problem for our age

In this report we focus on anxiety and depression because they are the most common mental health issues in our society today. While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought mental health sharply into focus for us all, we carried out the bulk of our research before the outbreak. So, while we talk here about mental health in later life more generally, we are conscious that the pandemic will have increased the challenges for many people.    

In our research three quarters (75%) of people aged 65+ said they have experienced significant anxiety or low mood at least once since turning 65, with 1 in 10 (10%) saying they feel this frequently or all the time.

I went into this project expecting to encounter people who had developed mental health problems later in life, but many of the people I spoke to had been dealing with anxiety and depression for many years – since they were teenagers in some cases. Many developed their own ways of dealing with it, for better or worse. This is a generation that mostly grew up without effective mental health support so perhaps it’s not a surprise that these issues have been around for a long time.  

Common challenges, different experiences

Every person is different, and their experiences vary depending on their circumstances. However, when conducting our research, we noticed some recurring themes around mental health in later life:

  • Anxiety and depression feature in many people’s lives. For some, these issues emerged as a response to a major event in later life such as the loss of a loved one. For others, anxiety and depression have been recurring features for years, even decades.
  • Access to and awareness of support options are mixed. The reasons for this are complicated – some people don’t feel comfortable talking about their mental health and consider it a private matter. Others have looked for support but faced long waits for talking therapy, or were offered limited options that didn’t suit them, such as medication.
  • Despite these challenges, people also highlighted the things that keep them positive and protect their mental health – volunteering, taking part in hobbies and activities and spending time with family, friends and pets.
  • Likewise, many people talked about the huge difference made by reaching out and seeking support. From talking therapy to medication, to a combination of both, those that felt happy and supported with their treatments felt better able to manage their conditions and live life on their terms.

Improving the offer for older people

Many of the barriers to support for mental health in later life are not new. It is difficult to tackle an individual’s long-held beliefs and fears, combined with the pressures on our health system and the professionals who work in it. The unfolding impact of COVID-19 only complicates these matters.

However, we believe there are some key steps that the government and NHS can take to improve the support people in later life receive. These include:

  • Reviewing the barriers to support for older people and developing ways to increase the number of people accessing treatment. This ranges from increased time for GP appointments, to greater access to talking therapies through the NHS.
  • Improving identification of risk factors for developing mental health issues in later life – such as being a carer. Likewise, improving understanding of the presence of mental health issues across a person’s lifetime, and how this might affect their treatment. 
  • Increasing public awareness of mental health in later life and developing new ways to target information to people at key points in their life, such as when they experience a bereavement.

In the coming months, we will be working with others to achieve these aims and to improve understanding of the problems people in later life face around their mental health more generally. We want to live in a society that understands that poor mental health is not just an inevitable part of getting older, that help is available, and that recovery is achievable.