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Experts say Ohio’s older adults need mental health support

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Thursday, May 30, 2024   

By Mara O'Malley for Kent State News Lab.
Broadcast version by Farah Siddiqi reporting for the Kent State-Ohio News Connection Collaboration.

According to the Ohio Department of Aging's Summary Assessment of Older Adults, deaths by suicide among adults ages 60 and older have increased by 40% in the last decade.

The spike is particularly concentrated among men aged 85 and older. At this point, the suicide rate of Ohio men age 85 and older is four times higher than the nation's overall suicide rate.

The Ohio Department of Aging has found that adults ages 60 and over have high rates of depression. Coleman Health Services, a nonprofit that provides behavioral and mental health services in 10 Ohio counties, works with some of those patients.

"It's an illness. it can be effectively treated," said Brian Welsh, chief medical officer at Coleman Health Services. "When you can't live your life they way you need to live it - because you don't get out of bed, you can't face the day and you withdraw from others or you have suicidal thoughts and you're hopeless - then you're not living the life where you need to."

Depression can be particularly hard on older adults who have experienced loss, Welsh said.

"As you get older, you start having more and more losses. Losses can be physical losses or social losses," Welsh said. "Along with that comes the physical issues that sometimes happen with decline, which could include things like mobility, arthritis, having increased issues with pain."

Coleman Health Services is also working to include more accessible services for the older population in case mobility issues are causing them to not come and seek help.

Last year, three older adults died by suicide in Portage County, said Karyn Kravetz, the associate director of the Portage County Mental Health and Recovery Board. In general, Kravetz said, they faced health challenges or chronic illnesses.

Beyond that, more than half of gun-related deaths in the U.S. are deaths by suicide, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control.

"Our last survey shows that 48% of the people in Portage County own firearms," Kravetz said. "When you have firearms in your home and you have access to lethal means, that can make that impulsive decision happen a lot faster."

The Mental Health and Recovery Board now offers a training every few weeks about signs of suicidal ideation.

"We're trying to up our suicide prevention training, to reach out to the different community groups," said Kravetz. She hopes that the more people they can train, the more people will be able to respond to those signs.

The Ohio Department of Aging worked with the Health Policy Institute of Ohio to assess the causes of the 40% spike in suicide rates among people 60 and older. The key challenges they noted were the conditions in which people live and the access they have to important resources around them.

Improving the mental health and well-being of older Ohioans requires a multifaceted approach. Older adults are also at risk of scams and elder abuse, may experience social isolation and may be vulnerable to disorders like hoarding.

Older adults sometimes feel a bond with someone who is trying to scam them and they fall into the trap due to loneliness, explained Richard Meeker, a therapist who works with Area Agency on Aging District 5. If someone calls them claiming to be from the IRS and demanding bank information, older adults may experience anxiety or panic and immediately answer instead of taking a second to consider who may be on the other end.

"We're seeing a lot of scams now being perpetrated on an emotional level with individuals," Meeker said."I talked about social isolation - if I've lost a spouse, I don't have a lot of contact with family, maybe, or friends, I'm becoming more withdrawn, I have a craving for human attention, I have someone that has shown an interest."

Empowering older adults and giving them some control back over their life is one of the most important things we can do, Meeker said. Area Agency on Aging helps to do that by providing its clients with transportation, helping them get caregivers, and getting them to come out of the house.

"We change all the time in life as decades continue to go by," Meeker said. "But one of the things that can be really impressive is, with older adults, they have the ability to adapt, to be able to overcome things. And through that adaptation they can be empowered."

Mara O'Malley wrote this article for Kent State News Lab. This collaboration is produced in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the George Gund Foundation.

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