New Polls Show General Public, Many Health Professionals Incorrectly Think Depression is a Normal Part of Aging

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Improved Understanding of Aging and Mental Health Can Save Lives

May 21, 2007 (Arlington, VA) Two new polls show that a majority of the American public””and too many health professionals””incorrectly think that depression is a normal part of aging. This misunderstanding keeps many older adults from treatment that would help them be as healthy, happy and productive as they could be, according to the Older Women’s League (OWL).

About 60 percent of Americans and almost one third of primary care physicians mistakenly think that depression is a normal part of aging, according to a new poll by Mental Health America.

A companion poll by OWL found that three groups of health professionals who come into regular contact with older adults””physician assistants, nurse aides and physical therapists””have similar biases. In response, OWL is developing tools to help professionals and older adults learn more about aging and mental health, including what people can do to promote mental health as they age.

“One in five Americans of all ages””young and old””experiences a diagnosable mental health problem in any given year,” said Laurie Young, PhD, executive director of OWL. “However, adults over age 75 have the highest suicide rate of any age group. This is not because they attempt suicide more often, but their attempts are more lethal. Front line health professionals can be key to assessing the mental health of older adults with whom they come in contact, making referrals for further assessment and treatment, if necessary. Increased understanding can lead to interventions that save lives.”

Physician assistants are the front line clinicians in many doctors’ offices, group practices and other medical settings. Nurse aides, also called nursing assistants, staff many residential facilities and provide home health care for older adults. Physical therapists assist older adults with rehabilitation following a fall or other physical health problems involving bones, muscles and joints.

Poll highlights include:

 Americans’ understanding of aging and mental health may be slipping backwards. Last winter, 59 percent of Americans said depression is a normal part of aging. Ten years ago, 51 percent of Americans incorrectly believed this to be true, according to Mental Health America.

 While 69 percent of primary care physicians know depression is not a normal part of aging, 31 percent do not, according to Mental Health America’s poll.
Mental Health Poll (Cont.)

 Two-thirds of physician assistants and physical therapists, and one-third of nurse aides know it is not normal for people to get depressed as they get older, OWL found.

 79 percent of the health professionals OWL polled do not know that adults older than age 75 have the highest suicide rate of any age group.

 The vast majority of all respondents know that clinical depression is a health problem. But one third of nurse aides think that a suicide attempt is a sign of weakness, as do 17 percent of physical therapists and 7 percent of physician assistants.

The results showed a direct correlation between education and understanding of mental illness. Physician assistants and physical therapists have graduate levels of education. Nurse aides typically do not have college degrees.

Eight in 10 physical therapists and physician assistants recognize that mental and physical health is closely related, but only half of nurse aides do. Physician’s assistants are more likely (83 percent) to know that physical complaints may be symptoms of a mental health problem (compared to 65 percent of physical therapists and 46 percent of nurse aides).

The majority of all physician assistants, nurse aides and physical therapists, 86 percent, “strongly agree” that mental health is important to overall health and say people should have the same access to treatment for mental health problems as for physical health problems. Primary care physicians share these views, the Mental Health America poll found.

OWL is working with the membership associations that represent physician assistants, physical therapists and nurse aides to develop tools to help these professionals identify possible mental health problems and talk with patients about referrals for assessment and treatment, if needed.

“Treatment works the same whether you are 18 or 80,” Young said. “Even better news is that we now know more about prevention. Research shows that eating right, getting exercise and enough sleep, exercising the mind, and staying close to friends and family all go a long way to maintaining and enhancing mental health.”

OWL is dedicated to making the lives of midlife and older women as productive and healthy as possible, and this includes promoting their mental health and the mental health of their loved ones. In this spirit, OWL created Older Americans’ Mental Health Week, the last week of May. Its purpose is: to raise awareness that mental illness is not a normal part of aging, to help develop better ways of helping older adults with mental health problems, and to further educate and train those in close daily contact with older adults.

Older Americans’ Mental Health Week is May 21-27, 2007. For more information, see For a complete copy of OWL’s poll results, e-mail [email protected].


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