In the nursing field, we often focus on physical ailments, but mental health can’t be ignored either. May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, so it’s a great time to talk about the mental health of the elderly.

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 15% of adults aged 60 or over suffer from a mental disorder. The most common disorders are dementia and depression, but seniors also suffer from anxiety disorders and substance abuse problems. Around a quarter of the suicides in the world are committed by people over 60.

Loss of mobility and independence, chronic pain and bereavement can bring about depression and loneliness in older people. Depression is often ignored and not diagnosed in the elderly because it coincides with other, seemingly more pressing, health issues. However, depression ultimately worsens physical conditions and impedes treatment.

A cheerful environment which allows for as much freedom as possible is extremely helpful in preventing loneliness and depression. Nursing facilities serve as home to people who are not very mobile, but the ability to make small choices can go a long way. Cheerful staff willing to exchange a few words of conversation while providing technical help maintain an optimistic atmosphere. Social activities between seniors and, whenever possible, a trip outdoors, can be major mood-lifters.

Nursing assistants are often the first ones to pick up on a problem. They have the most day to day contact with residents so they can tell when someone’s attitude has changed drastically. If they spot possible depression, it’s important that they inform other medical professionals so the problem can be dealt with before it worsens.

Another thing to look out for is dementia. 47.5 million people in the world are living with dementia and that number is expected to increase as the population continues to age. Although there’s no cure for dementia, early diagnosis and medication does help in management. Patients with dementia need to be treated differently from those who are difficult for other reasons, so it’s important that the disorder is not misdiagnosed.

Substance abuse and elder abuse are more likely to occur at home as opposed to a nursing facility, but attention should be paid to these possibilities as well.

Mental health and physical health are intrinsically tied together, and awareness on the part of nursing assistants is critical in diagnosing and treating both types of conditions.