Robin Williams was 63-years-old when he killed himself — at an age you might have thought he would have left behind the most tormented years of his life. But both depression and suicide are rising among middle-aged men. Here Roger Jones of the Older Men’s Network explains the some of the issues that impact on older men’s mental health.
It is very easy to assume that when we talk about mental health and older people we are talking about Dementia. But 1 in 4 older people will experience a mental well being issue this year.
More women are diagnosed with depression than men, however it is acknowledged that this is because men are less likely to seek help, which leads to a greater threat of the depression getting a more severe hold and in some cases leading to suicide.
Statistics from The Mental Health Foundation tell us that the number of middle aged men and older men taking their own lives has risen over the last few years, with over 1,000 men aged 50+ killing themselves every year in England and Wales.
500,000 older UK men live alone
What is more, most older people with depression are never diagnosed and do not receive any treatment for their depression, even if they have seen their GP.
Sometimes this is because they may present to GPs with a physical problem but the underlying issue is a mental health difficulty such as depression. Instead, if they get help, they rely on informal support such as family, friends and community groups.
Social isolation reduces the amount of informal support available, increases the risk of developing depression, and reduces the quality of life for older men — and around 500,000 older men live on their own in the UK.
The most isolated older men are those aged over 75 and those who are living alone — this is particularly the case if they are widowed or divorced. Bereavement or loss — which might include loss of income, role and status associated with retirement — leaves older men particularly vulnerable to mental ill health. Some widowers find that without their wife or partner who may have acted as their “social secretary” it can be hard to maintain friendships. Older men with families and children are also less likely to be in touch with them than older women.
‘It can be difficult for them to accept help’
Deterioration in physical health and mobility associated with growing older also makes people vulnerable to mental health problems. Even for people in long term relationships, there may be risks to their mental health if they are involved in increasing caring responsibilities, particularly if they are caring for a partner with dementia or other chronic conditions.
Whilst there are many good community-based services for older people, older men are less likely to use them than women, particularly if they are isolated and living alone.
Many older men are reluctant to take part in groups or services like day centres, seeing them as being for women or the very old and dependent. When men have spent their lives independently or have seen themselves in the role of the family provider, it can be difficult for them to accept help.
The groups and activities that the Older Men’s Network facilitate always aim to support Older Men to have fun, make friends and give them something to look forward to.
‘Men find a common bond’
We always try to train some of the men in the groups as Older Men’s Champions who are more aware of the problems an older man will face and they can then support them or signpost them as needed.
Although we are aiming to get older men more active so they can live a healthier and more fulfilled later life, we always need to be aware that men also need support around their mental health.
We all have a physical health and we all have a mental health – sometimes they are in good condition sometimes they are not. We need to be aware that when our mental health is not so good we need to talk to someone about it.
Talking and sharing problems is one of the best ways to address this and a big part of the Champions training is about encouraging the guys in the groups to feel it’s OK to share their thoughts and feelings. This doesn’t happen on day one of course, but as the men bond and friendships develop and the men find a common bond the opportunities to off load are there.
We will never be able to deal with all cases of depression in men but if we can build opportunities and avenues for men to share their feelings, and raise awareness in campaigns which men can relate to without stigma then maybe we can start to save more lives.
By Roger Jones, National Manager, National Older Men’s Network
Photo courtesy: Cristian Stefanescu
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