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In observance of Mental Health Awareness Month, we acknowledge the increasing need for mental health services for our nation’s seniors. It’s estimated that 20% of people 55 or older experience common mental health concerns — anxiety, depression, and dementia-related disorders are among the most prevalent.

Unfortunately, the needs and growth of the senior population experiencing mental health concerns exceed the number of behavioral health providers trained in geriatric care. 

Plus, the workforce that commonly works with the geriatric population — primary care physicians, nursing home staff, and hospital staff — is not always trained to effectively identify and treat mental illness in the senior population.

Strengthening the Geriatric Mental Health Workforce

The geriatric behavioral health workforce faces several challenges, including lacking training opportunities, few incentives for entering the geriatric field, and poorly defined roles.

The National Coalition on Mental Health and Aging is dedicated to addressing the needs of older Americans with mental health conditions. The Coalition believes it will take using critical strategies to address the current and future shortfall in providers who are trained in geriatrics and mental health, including:

  1. Exploring incentive programs, including loan repayment programs and increased authorization of graduate medical education payments 
  2. Expanding required training in geriatrics to long-term care nurses and other allied professionals in addressing psychiatric disorders and behavioral symptoms of dementia
  3. Developing approaches to increasing the number of providers with geriatric mental health training, including: early educational awareness of geriatrics as a potential career path; development of multidisciplinary training in aging and mental health; increasing provider competencies through information-technology mechanisms; and increasing the proportion of educational programs with training in late-life mental health disorders

Offering Integrated Care

Due to the current and projected future shortage of geriatric behavioral health specialists, the Coalition also believes that adequately trained primary care providers can be a gateway to better mental health services for older adults. When seniors can receive mental health services from their primary care provider, it lessens the stigma and makes transportation easier.

A substantial body of evidence shows that integrated care models like Collaborative Care, which incorporates depression care into general medical settings, can improve behavioral health treatment delivery and outcomes for older adults.

Unfortunately, this collaborative care is not widely available for Medicare beneficiaries. And there are few financial incentives for physician practices. The more we can incentivize practices to provide coordinated care within the primary setting, access to mental health treatment will be easier to access for millions of older adults in need.

Seniors Deserve Accessible, Affordable Mental Health Treatment

Older adults want the freedom to work with their healthcare providers to find the mental health professionals and treatments that work best for them. 

Until recently, Medicare beneficiaries have not had access to marriage and family therapists or mental health counselors. These two mental health providers make up 40% of the behavioral health professionals in U.S. Thanks to the passage of the Mental Health Inclusion Act, these providers will be recognized as Medicare-eligible starting in 2024.

Though we’ve made strides, our current system can make it difficult for seniors to receive the care they need for mental health conditions. Lack of trained providers, issues with insurance coverage, and access to care are all common barriers.

Moving forward, each of us must recognize this population’s unique mental health needs and work toward removing barriers they face to help widen access to treatment.