Charities warn of undiagnosed depression among 120,000 older Scots

Two leading charities – the Mental Health Foundation and Age Scotland – have warned that loneliness is creating mental health problems among tens of thousands of older Scots.

New research by the charities found that 1 in 4 people aged 65 and over experience depression when they last felt lonely, with 16% saying it also leads to anxiety.

There is a widespread reluctance among this generation to seek help, with almost a third (31%) saying they feel they ought to cope with it by themselves. Almost a quarter (22%) don’t want to bother family or friends and 12% said they don’t want to talk to their GP about it.

New technology could be exacerbating social isolation. Almost 4 in 5 (79%) say that spending time face to face with others improves their mental health. In contrast around 1 in 5 (19%) say that technology, such as social media, is causing them to feel lonely as it has replaced face-to-face contact.

The Mental Health Foundation is warning the Scottish Government that around 120,000 older Scots could be living with undiagnosed mental health conditions resulting from loneliness and isolation. 

The Scottish Government has committed to a national strategy on social isolation during this parliamentary term. 

However, among the 40 actions of the new mental health strategy not one of them is specific to older people.

The survey follows research conducted by Age Scotland earlier this month which found that Christmas is the loneliest time of year for many older Scots. This year, 60,000 people aged over 65 will spend Christmas Day alone, an increase of 50% on two years ago, while 80,000 say they feel especially lonely over the festive period.

Lee Knifton, Head of Mental Health Foundation Scotland said:

"Loneliness is one of the greatest public health challenges of our time. Indeed it’s as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. This research is clear that if left unaddressed it can lead to mental health problems like depression or anxiety. 

 "It's heartbreaking that so many older people feel they ought to cope with their loneliness themselves and it shows that many are not reaching out for help. But feeling lonely is nothing to be ashamed of – it’s a consequence of our fragmented society. Older people need to be supported to seek help and expect that there will be appropriate responses available.

"The mental health needs of older people need to be taken seriously and not just bundled as 'older people’s problems' as they too often are. It's disappointing that among the 40 actions of the new mental health strategy not one of them is specific to older people.

"If we prevent loneliness we can prevent mental health problems and reduce hospital admissions. Too many older people are stuck in hospital wards as there is no alternative for them – but in many cases it’s not an acute need, but a social and community response they require. That’s why today we have published an action plan that includes a 'welcome home box' for every discharged patient from hospital to keep people connected and healthy in their own communities and prevent re-admission."

Brian Sloan, Chief Executive of Age Scotland said: 

"Loneliness is a growing public health crisis and should not simply be considered an inevitable part of getting older. This new research shows the devastating toll that it is taking on the mental health and wellbeing of older Scots.

"It’s heart breaking to think of so many older people suffering in silence, unwilling to reach out to family or friends for fear of being a burden. There’s a widespread belief that people should simply get on with it and cope by themselves, suggesting that serious mental health problems are going undiagnosed.

"We need to see action on a national scale to tackle the epidemic of loneliness and isolation. Our plan sets out steps that would make a real difference to older people, such as screening hospital patients for depression and social isolation and investing in community support, such as befriending services or Men’s Sheds.

"Of course there is a lot that we can all do to reach out to older relatives or neighbours, especially at this time of year. Simply taking time for a chat or encouraging them to speak to their GP if they have concerns could quite literally be a lifeline for them."

The charities have published a 12-point plan to tackle loneliness and reduce mental health problems among older adults which includes: 

  • A 'welcome home box' for every discharged patient. This would include information, advice and a four week befriending service. It would also link older people with local community groups offering friendship, health and fitness. Keeping people connected and healthy would cut hospital re-admissions, reduce pressure on the NHS and save lives.  
  • Screening for depression upon leaving hospital would flag up older patients at risk of loneliness to Health and Social Care teams. 
  • Embedding 'relationships of care' in the training curriculum of nursing students, whereby colleges team up with care homes or sheltered housing and spend time with older people, building rapport, empathy and trust. 
  • Mapping communities with high numbers of older people so that health and social care teams can easily target those at risk of loneliness.
  • Encouraging every school in Scotland to team up with a care home, sheltered housing or other groups of older people and undertake inter-generation projects. 
  • More preventative investment in community services such as day centres, befriending services, peer support and Men’s Sheds. All of these initiatives have proven to reduce hospital admissions and should be seen as long-term investments in an ageing society.

Read the policy paper and recommendations