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MindFULL: Everyone Needs Mental Health Care

Illustration of three women embracing; one is young, one is middle aged, and one is elderly
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When we think of someone who is a mental health advocate, what is the first image that comes to mind? Better yet, when we think of people who need mental health services, what demographic do we think about first?

The fact of the matter is that mental health treatment and services are for everyone. Not just people of a certain age, race, ethnicity, class, religion, or political affiliation. We discussed the topic of stigma surrounding mental health in our first installment of the MindFULL series. In this second part of this series, I want to dive more into how mental health awareness should serve some of the most vulnerable people in our population.

Mental Health in Old Age

It seems that when it comes to the conversation of mental health, our older population (in this case, people 60 and above) tends to be overlooked. In actuality, the most common mental health conditions in older adults include anxiety and depression. High contributing factors to mental health depletion in later life include social isolation and loneliness, as well as elder abuse.

Another factor that has to be addressed is Ageism, the bias and discrimination towards older people due to negative and inaccurate stereotypes. Ageism can ultimately lead to consequences that disrupt a person's way of life, namely the ability to gain and maintain employment. Ageism is described as a "socially acceptable" prejudice. It ranges from the mild and playful "Ok Boomer" memes, being talked down to, and being seen as incapable of doing your job based solely on age. While DEI programs have been more focused on policies that tackle issues of race and gender bias, age bias still goes unnoticed.

Aging, in itself, is a very diverse process. When we pose our ideas of aging on someone despite not knowing anything about their state of mind and capabilities, we send an unconscious message: You are a nuisance.

An elderly couple read together on a couch
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We also must think about the stage of life older people are facing. People who live well into their 80s experience many losses between friends, family, and spouses. Even if their minds are still sharp, more often than not their body does not cooperate with what their mind wants. This leads to frustration, anger, and bitterness, which can frequently be displaced and thrown at well-meaning caretakers. While most people want to take care of their parents in old age, a lot still don't have the means to do so while working full-time. Some make tough decisions regarding finances, leaving work, caretaking, or finding professional care for their elderly family members. It is no wonder that depression and anxiety can plague this community.

While there are things we can do on the individual level, ultimately we need more reliable assistance and policies that will make care (mental and physical) more affordable and accessible. This would include programs to ensure accessible and affordable housing, accessible public transport, and social programs targeted toward elders who live alone or in remote areas. In the meantime, one of the things we can do is provide more social experiences for our elders, especially if they live alone. At this stage of life, meaningful social activities can significantly improve positive mental health, life satisfaction, and quality of life; they can also reduce depressive symptoms. Even if it's difficult, we can also support them in leading a healthy lifestyle with light exercise (as much as their movement allows). While there are preventative measures such as the ones listed above, we should also understand that prompt recognition of mental health conditions is imperative.

Mental Health in Young Children

Often when we think of mental health in children, it is by way of common disorders like ADHD or other behavioral disorders. For a lot of us, we're not thinking about children having anxiety or being depressed. When I was a kid, sometimes I would mention to my parents about physical pain. It would be nothing serious, mind you, just some soreness in my back or knees. To this, they would laugh and respond "You're only [young age], you don't have a back! You're only [young age], you don't have knees!" In other words, you're too young to have these types of "old people" pains like we do.

Unfortunately, sometimes parents and caretakers can take that same playful response and apply it to the state of their child's mental health. In their minds, they may wonder: Well, what does a kid that age have to be anxious about? What does a kid that age have to be so depressed about?

According to the CDC, 9.4% of children (ages 3 - 17) were diagnosed with anxiety in 2019. 4% of children under that same age demographic were diagnosed with depression in 2019. This may not seem like much, but that would make about 5.8 million kids with anxiety and about 2.7 million kids with depression.

When it comes to anxiety in children, it could be mistaken as typical misbehavior because it usually comes in the form of irritability and anger. Worry and fear are common among young children, but when they have so many worries that interfere with everyday life (home, play, activities, school, etc) it could be time to look into a diagnosis. Different forms of anxiety include separation anxiety (fear of being away from parents/caretakers), phobias, social anxiety, general anxiety, and panic disorders.

A child expresses stress and anxiety while her mother looks in bewilderment.
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Depression can also be tricky because feeling sad and hopeless is generally a big part of being a kid. It is easy to pass off depressive behavior as being lazy or dramatic, but it is crucial to pay attention to what the child is doing and how they act. One common sign of depression is the lack of interest or excitement in things that we enjoy. Other signs include dramatic changes in sleeping or eating patterns. In other cases, it could involve self-injury or self-destructive behavior. Again, depression may not always show up in children like it does in adults. Kids may express their depression by making trouble or acting unmotivated.

We have to keep in mind that the idea of children needing treatment for anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorders isn't as outlandish as we may think. After all, a lot of work we do for our mental health as adults can often be traced back to trauma experienced during childhood. Even if you are unsure if a kid is "just being a kid" or that it could be more serious, it is best to be safe and visit your child's primary care doctor or mental health professional specializing in child development.

For parents and caretakers, emphasizing physical activity and a healthy diet could be challenging (something children and the elderly have in common), but when introduced early it can do wonders for the child's mental well-being. Some parents have also opted out of traditional authoritative parenting to a more "gentle" approach that focuses on the development of empathy, boundaries, and regulation of emotions at an earlier age.

It Can Happen to Anyone

Sometimes we assign to a mindset of "Not me". Without realizing it, we treat mental health disorders as a "someone else" problem. That couldn't happen to me, that couldn't happen to my family, that couldn't happen to my child, etc. But we do ourselves and the people around us a disservice when we chalk up mental health woes as an issue that could never affect us.

Whether someone is young or old, financially struggling or affluent, popular or a social outcast: their mental health still matters. With this in mind, I hope that we can take the steps we need to better understand what it takes to maintain our mental and emotional well-being. When we remember that there is no "requirement" for mental health maintenance, we are more ready to lead with compassion and empathy instead of pity and sympathy.

Thanks for reading!



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