At this time of year, I’m reminded to also ask my older patients how their mental health is doing. I do it for two reasons. One is because October is Depression Awareness month and the other is that older people can often hide their depression better than younger people. So, if you’re over 50, I’d like to tell you about 5 things you can do to help yourself – or a loved one – with depression.
Getting Older and Depression – These Simple Things Can Help You Beat It
Most people over 50 grew up in eras where mental health issues had a dark cloud of stigma attached to them. People didn’t readily admit to being depressed. The old saying, “snap out of it”, was often said to people who were suffering from depression or “the blues” as it was often called. The idea that people could immediately transform their mental state in a snap was, and still is, just not medically possible.
People who had depression in those days knew that “snapping out of it” wasn’t possible. So, they did their best to hide it and pretend they were okay by faking it. But, often, this resulted in their bad feelings only surfacing much more dramatically.
Today, in 2014, the veil of social stigma over mental health issues has lifted much more than back in those earlier eras. People younger than 40 now have an easier time admitting that they’re depressed, or anxious, or troubled. That’s because, today, our society encourages more open self-expression in general.
But, there’s still work that needs to be done. A recent study out of Mount Sinai Hospital identified that several different types of stigmas still existed about seeking help for mental issues. Many people still see those with mental health issues as dangerous and unpredictable. People also generally associate getting older and some of its symptoms, like memory loss, irritability or sadness, as more associated with unbalanced mental states. Some age-related illnesses, and treatments for them, can even have depression as a side effect. So, older populations are not so eager to share their innermost worries, sadnesses and anxieties.
It’s important to remember that depression is an illness. And, like all illnesses, there should be no shame in admitting that you have it – no matter what your age. Depression won’t get better unless you find ways to improve and heal it. The only way you do that is to, first, admit that it’s there – to yourself and professionals who can help you.
Then, besides professional care, there are a few simple things you can do to help improve depression and/or keep it at bay.
5 Ways To Fight Depression
Even if you’re relatively content and happy, you only need to turn on the TV News these days to get depressed. The world seems to be in chaos and no good strategy to remedy it. For most people though you need only to turn off the TV or radio and find something happy to do to brighten your spirits.
For others, redirecting your focus and lifting your spirits may not be so easy. A recent study cited by the Association for Psychological Science reported that over 60 million Americans suffer from depression each year. And, you may be one of the 40% of Americans who are carrying the burden of that depression in silence. You may be one of those who haven’t reported your feelings to professionals, or even your family or friends, out of fear. As a result, you may not know where to turn.
First, seek help from professionals – start with your personal doctor. He/she can give you a referral to a mental health counselor, or another appropriate professional, that can help with the underlying problem that may be causing your depression.
For example, many older people are having financial problems these days that weigh heavily on their minds. Talking to someone who specializes in senior finances can help identify ideas you may not have thought of that can help.
If your depression stems from the recent death of a loved one, you may need a grief counselor to help you through the first 6 months to 1 year. Talking about the loss one on one, or in a grief support group, allows you to express feelings about the loss and that you’re not alone.
In addition, the following are some simple things you can do to help yourself, or a loved one, pull out of depression:
1. Disconnect from triggers. Although it’s good to stay connected socially and know what’s going on in the world, taking a vacation from TV, radio news, social media can help you decompress. Instead, replace TV and Facebook time with more of the next suggestion.
2. Exercise. Get at least 30 minutes a day of exercise, preferably outside in sunny, mild weather. But don’t forego exercise because of bad weather. Get to a gym, or even the local mall, to walk. Getting out in public helps bring up your spirits and focus on new visual information that helps take your mind off your problems. Just as important, exercise raises your endorphin levels in your brain which help create a sunnier mood and a more positive outlook. And don’t forget your music when you exercise. Choose music with a strong “moving” dance beat. Research shows that this type of music actually stimulates your brain’s “feel good” hormones and puts you in a better mood. It also helps you exercise more.
3. Drink More Cocoa. This may sound simplistic, but studies have shown that older people who drink a few cups of cocoa per day have sunnier moods. The polyphenols and flavonoids (types of antioxidants) help boost blood flow, and the oxygen it carries, to your brain. Its caffeine and theobromine content also boost your energy levels.
4. Eat Your Way Happy. Many people suffering from depression actually have undiagnosed nutritional deficiencies in the B vitamins. B12 and B6 deficiencies are common in older people and are noted to contribute to depression, poor memory and irritability. Up your intake of fruits, vegetables to the recommended 5-8 servings per day to get enough polyphenols and an array of vitamins that boost brain and mood health. Also, take a good multivitamin supplement which can help improve your moods as well.
5. Sleep. Many cases of depression can be caused by chronic lack of sleep. This is especially true as people get older and your melatonin stores start naturally decreasing. Aim for a minimum of 6 hours of sleep per night – 7-8 is better. Take melatonin to help get to sleep, but be sure you’re taking the proper dose. If you’re over 50, 2 mg may be all you need; ages 60-70 2.5 to 3.5 mg may be necessary. Adjust the dose according to how you feel the next morning.
There are several reasons why older people may become depressed – illness, death of loved ones, finances, etc. But it’s important to remember that depression is not a “normal” part of getting older and you don’t need to suffer in silence with your feelings. Try some of the recommendations listed here and seek help to get back on the road to a brighter outlook.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Health Highlights, Depression, http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/october-depression-awareness-month
Stigma as Barrier To Mental Health, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/09/140905113951.htm
How and Why Music Therapy is Effective, http://stress.about.com/od/tensiontamers/a/music_therapy.htm