Mental health support for older Aussies

COVID-19 has sparked an unprecedented mental health crisis in Australia that is not being addressed, according to a wide range of medical professionals, but a Macquarie University program is being developed to address the issue – at least among older Australians.

The federal government ‘solution’ – to double the annual number of Medicare-subsidised psychological sessions from 10 to 20 – is a “mistake”, mental health experts say, citing out-of-pocket costs and the paucity of services in regional areas.

Louise Stone, clinical associate professor from the Australian National University medical school, said the increase in Medicare-subsidised sessions was only useful for those who could afford the co-payments, or lived in areas where psychologists were available.

The Australian Psychological Society’s recommended consultation fee for a 45 to 60-minute session is $260, while the typical rebate is $128, the ABC reports.

Assoc. Prof. Stone said the large gap payment meant the system favoured the more privileged members of a community.

“We’ve subsidised the services that at the moment are reaching the more advantaged parts of the population, and we’re missing the disadvantaged,” she said.

Dr Patrick McGorry, mental health advocate and executive director of youth mental health organisation Orygen, said the shortage of mental health workers was exacerbated by the expansion of subsidised sessions.

“You’re solving one problem, but you’re creating another,” he said.

But a team at Macquarie University is offering an online ‘solution’ – aimed specifically at older Australians in need of support.

Professor Viviana Wuthrich, director of the Centre for Ageing, Cognition and Wellbeing at Macquarie University, said about one in 20 Australians over the age of 65 had a diagnosable depressive or anxiety disorder.

Suicide rates among older men were four times that of women, and twice that of teenage males, she said.

“This is not an issue that we’re dealing with adequately as a society. Older adults in Australia have the least access to mental health treatment of any age group.”

She said the common triggers for depression in older people were often related to loss and change leading to social isolation.

“Losing your physical fitness, cognitive decline, the death of a spouse or close friend – these are some big life changes and not having the support you need can lead to depression,” she said.

There might also be underlying, long-term mental health issues that people have never sought help for and which become exacerbated in older age.

Prof. Wuthrich and her team have developed a program called Ageing Wisely Online. It is part of a stepped approach that encourages older people to follow self-directed treatment, by either using an online program or a work-at-home workbook over 10 weeks.

Participants also have a 15-minute weekly phone consultation with a mental health clinician and participants take part in the privacy of their own home.

The program is being trialled in Sydney, Bathurst, Dubbo and Orange, but the aim is to make it available across Australia.

More participants are being sought. If you – or someone you know – are interested in taking part in the trial, more information is available here. You can also call (02) 9850 8715 or send an email to [email protected]

Many older Australians would recognise the voices of the characters in the videos in the online program. They are actors Noeline Brown and Gregory Ross. Ms Brown said she was delighted to be part of the initiative and had worked to keep connections with others strong.

“You’ve got to tend your friends like a garden,” she said. “Send an email. Phone people. It takes work – especially during COVID-19 when you can’t just go out and have a cup of coffee but it’s worth keeping those friendships going.”

Readers seeking support and information about suicide and depression can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue.

Have you noticed more mental health issues among friends and colleagues since the pandemic started? What have you been doing to maintain your mental health?

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Written by Janelle Ward

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