Bill Addresses Inflated Rate of Depression Among Nation's Seniors

WASHINGTON, D.C. - U. S. Senator Herb Kohl, Chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, today signed on as a cosponsor of the Positive Aging Act of 2007 (S. 982), a bill that would help reduce depression, substance abuse, and suicide among older Americans. The bill, introduced last month by Senators Hillary Clinton (NY) and Susan Collins (ME), was recommended as one key action the federal government should take at a senior suicide hearing held last year by the Aging Committee. Currently, an estimated 20 percent of older adults in the United States have a mental health problem, and it is estimated that up to two-thirds of older adults with a mental disorder do not receive the services they need.

"Too many of our nation's seniors are falling prey to depression and are often left untreated and suicidal. Missed opportunities to diagnose and treat mental diseases are taking a huge toll on the elderly and the health care system," said Chairman Kohl. "The most heartbreaking aspect is that many older people are resigned to it: more than half of seniors reported that they thought depression was a normal part of aging in a recent survey. But depression is not a normal part of aging, and it is treatable. This bill would help save lives."

The Positive Aging Act would provide mental health services for seniors by authorizing demonstration projects to integrate mental health screenings into doctors' offices and clinics, in urban and rural medically underserved areas. Evidence suggests that up to 75 percent of older adults who commit suicide have visited a primary care professional within 30 days of their death. Although effective treatments exist, the mental health needs of many older Americans go unrecognized and untreated because physical and mental health care services remain separate in traditional healthcare settings.

Additionally, the bill would authorize grants to fund community outreach to seniors by mental health professionals. The bill would also require states to include descriptions of their outreach and services for older individuals in their state plans as a condition of receiving block grant funds, and require the inclusion of advocates for older adults and their families and geriatric mental health professionals on the Advisory Council for the Center for Mental Health Services. Lastly, the bill would promote substance abuse services and outreach for older adults at a national level.

Depression, dementia, anxiety, and substance abuse among Americans over age 65 are growing problems that may result in functional dependence, long-term institutional care, reduced quality of life, or suicide. If left untreated, mental disorders can have significant consequences, including increases in disease, disability and mortality. In fact, men age 85 and older currently have the highest rates of suicide in our country and depression is the foremost risk factor.

The Positive Aging Act is supported by the American Association of Geriatric Psychiatry and over 35 other mental health, aging, and healthcare organizations. The aim of the billto improve recognition, assessment, and treatment of mental illness and depression among older Americanscoincides with one of the top ten resolutions passed by the 2005 White House Conference on Aging.

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