Are older people being denied access to mental health care?

All mental health services across the UK are under strain, with rising demand from all generations. But a couple of recent reports suggest that access to mental health care is even harder for older people, leading to accusations of ageism.

Depression affects 22% of men and 28% of women aged over 65 in England, but 85% of older people with depression are said to get no help at all, according to data from BACP, the leading professional body for counsellors and psychotherapists. BACP has now made it a strategic priority for the organisation to push for access to therapy for our ageing population.

Other evidence from a study at Plymouth University found that the percentage of patients referred to NHS therapy services reduced significantly reduced with age: from 23% of people aged 20-24 to a mere 6% for those between 70 and 74.

Yet the Plymouth study, led by Professor Richard Byng, shows that older people are actually more likely than younger ones to turn up for therapy sessions and then to benefit from them in terms of their recovery rates.

Maybe doctors need to check any tendency to assume that being miserable is part of getting old and be more alert to signs of real depression and anxiety in older people presenting in their surgeries.

My experience as a Hastings counsellor tends to support these findings. Many clients of all ages can find it difficult to engage with therapy to start with, but it does tend to be the older ones who stick with the process and then come to benefit from being able to talk openly and confidentially to an independent professional. And it tends to be the older clients who are able to work on the existential issues which can often underlie the more obvious issues of depression, anxiety or anger.