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National summit puts spotlight on mental health of older Australians

Ahead of a national summit on the mental health of older Australians in Melbourne tomorrow, Mental Health Victoria explains below why it is important to “put mental health firmly on the aged care reform agenda while planting aged care in the minds of mental health reformists”.

Marie McInerney will cover the summit for the Croakey Conference News Service, and you can also follow the news at #MHAgeing, while Dave Peters will tweet for @WePublicHealth.


Mental Health Victoria writes:

With a rapidly ageing population, the mental health of Australia’s older people is an urgent national priority.

There is increasing recognition that good mental health is a key factor associated with healthy ageing. Although the determinants of good health have commonalities across all ages and stages, the risk and protective factors experienced by older people in relation to mental health are quite unique.

With the Federal Government’s Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, and the State Government’s Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, both well underway, now is a one-in-a-lifetime lifetime opportunity to focus our attention and investment on supporting the mental health of our senior citizens.

There has never been a more important time to come together to ensure that older Australians are able to access the care and support they need, when they need it, regardless of their age, living status, family support or social context.

The Ageing and Mental Health Summit is getting the right people in the room and stoking the discussion about ageing and mental health.

Mental Health Victoria’s vision is to drive system reform to ensure that people receive the mental health care they need when they need it. Sponsored by the Westpac Foundation, the Summit hopes to spark the ideas and collaborations that will get mental health care right for older people in Australia.

We have invited consumers, carers, clinicians, academics, policy specialists and government officials from across the mental health and aged care sectors, with shared interests in mental health for senior Australians to formulate a vision for reform.

Opening the day is the first-ever Commissioner for Senior Victorians and Ambassador for Elder Abuse Prevention, Gerard Mansour. A highly respected and passionate advocate for the needs of older people, Mansour comes with over 30 years’ experience within the aged care and community services sectors.

Priorities for reform

Presenting insights from his work listening to the voices of senior Victorians, Mansour will highlight a range of areas in need of reform, including human rights and privacy, service system design, the provision of multidisciplinary care and social support, the prevention of elder abuse and the social inclusion of older people.

The rest of the day will include keynote presentations from professionals and people with lived experience, and a series of panels covering a range of topics including barriers and opportunities in service provision across various settings of care, the importance of care which is focussed on the consumer and inclusive of their carers and family members, and the priorities for reform to better support the mental health and wellbeing of older Australians.

All delegates will provide their own perspectives on reform priorities through a series of table discussions and other interactive sessions throughout the day.

Older Australians need access to mental health services in residential care settings, in their own homes and other places in the community.

We need to consider mental health issues across the spectrum, from highly prevalent conditions like anxiety and depression to more severe, complex or enduring mental illnesses, especially dementia, and how these are supported across the various settings.

At the Summit, residential aged care service providers, community health providers and mental health professionals will discuss gaps in service provision, workforce needs, best-practice models and priorities for reform.

Throughout the Aged Care Royal Commission the high rates of mental illness and distress in institutional settings has emerged as a key reform priority.

Between about 10 and 15 percent of older people experience depression and about 10 per cent experience anxiety.

Rates of depression among people living in residential aged care are believed to be much higher, around 35 percent. Even higher rates of poor mental health are found among people in hospital, people with physical health problems, people with dementia, and older people who are carers of people with their own mental health issues.

Older people might be less able, less visible and/or less willing to share their experiences of mental distress. Symptoms can be overlooked for long periods of time and, as we know, services are thin on the ground. Often intervention is reserved for those at crisis point.

Mental health is a high priority for our youth. They might be better able to recognise and talk about the impact of poor mental health. However, stigma is still strong for those who have known very different attitudes to mental illness throughout their lifetimes.

Lived experience

Reforming attitudes and reforming the system necessitates bringing together experts, leaders and change-makers with a lived experience of mental illness and those who care for others living with mental illness. People who have directly experienced the barriers to preventing or recovering from mental illness are the ideal visionaries of a better way forward. They can also break the stigma for their peers.

One such visionary, Ian Higgins, will share his experience of hospitalisation as the result of a late onset bipolar event. Ian is a writer, a former Presbyterian Minister and a retired Chaplain.

His vast life experiences, spirituality and literary talents, soon to be displayed in his yet-to-be released book ‘Bipolar: Living With This Condition’, will paint a colourful picture of his own lived experience of mental illness.

Marie Pui, carer and CEO of Tandem Inc. (the peak body for carers of people with mental illness) will join other service providers and co-design experts from the Council of The Aging (COTA Vic), Senior Rights Victoria and the Health and Ageing Research Group at Swinburne University to discuss consumer-focused and carer-inclusive care.

Pui’s own experience providing support to her now elderly migrant mother, since she was a young child, has impassioned her belief that recovery from mental illness is relational. If people with a lived experience of mental illness and their carers and family members are involved in developing the system, people’s recovery will be supported by a system based on the relationships which are important to them. This will mean a better service system, and more chances for recovery.

Addressing loneliness and social isolation

Relational approaches to prevention and recovery from mental illness are particularly important considering older people are much more likely to experience loneliness and social isolation.

Up to a third of older people experience loneliness, with seven to nine per cent experiencing severe loneliness. Loneliness and social isolation are strongly associated with a range of physical and mental health conditions, including depression, reduced capacity for independent living, and increased suicide rates.

There are over 1.6 million Australians over 65 and only about eight of the 19 cohorts of ‘baby boomers’ have turned 65. Healthy ageing is an urgent national priority.

The Mental Health Victoria Ageing and Mental Health Summit promises to put mental health firmly on the aged care reform agenda while planting aged care in the minds of mental health reformists.

The networks and ideas inspired by the Summit will continue beyond the current processes for reform, supporting consumers, carers and professionals from all parts of the system to collaborate better well into the future.

• Mental Health Victoria is the peak body for mental health service providers in Victoria. On Twitter, follow @MentalHealthVic.