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  • Miriam Bingham

Focus on Mental Health: When to Self Help - When to Seek Help

The nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have forced many into quarantine, and experts say this isolation is a factor in the rise of mental health issues.

During the pandemic, the National Census for Health Statistics began a bi-weekly national survey to capture data regarding mental health in the country. According to Michigan State University’s Food & Health Extension, Michigan had a higher rate of mental health disorders than the national average.

“Broken down by state, the percentage of those reporting symptoms of anxiety or stress disorder peaked during the period ending on December 21, 2020, at 45.6%.” Now that daily activities are starting to return to some level of normalcy, the percentage of mental health disorders “has steadily decreased since that peak, with Michigan’s figure settling in at 30.9% in the period ending on August 16.”

Statistics also show that mental health awareness is just as important for elders as it is for younger age groups. Holly Tiret, a MSU Extension specialist in social emotional health and wellbeing across the life span, said depression should not be considered a normal part of aging - but that this fact, as well as the signs of depression, are often overlooked.

“Older adults are faced with many life changes due to typical aging, such as death of a spouse, moving out of the family home or declining health or mobility,” said Tiret. “Therefore, symptoms of depression are sometimes overlooked or missed by doctors, family members and friends.”

Depression and anxiety – especially around the holidays – can also be triggered by personal traumatic experiences. Geraldine Wilburn, a senior who lives in Flint, Michigan, became anxious when her son was diagnosed with cancer. She didn’t talk to a counselor, therapist, or to friends about her feelings. When Wilburn’s son died, after a long, hard battle with cancer, she became very depressed.

Now, with the holidays coming around, Wilburn says she finds herself becoming somewhat anxious. “I get a little sad about it,” said Wilburn. “I find myself thinking what the holidays used to be when we were younger. And how exciting and fun it would be. It’s not like that anymore.”

Those who think they are experiencing any symptoms of anxiety or depression need to be proactive. The first step can be getting a referral from the doctor.

“Your own doctor will first do a thorough physical exam,” said Tiret. “They need to make sure your symptoms are not the result of other health problems like hypothyroidism or medications you are already taking.”

A health insurance company can also make a referral, as most policies also have a behavioral health benefit. Those with Medicare can receive mental health care through an outpatient hospital program, at a doctor’s or therapist’s office, or at a clinic.

Now that time has passed since her trauma, “My mental health is much better,” said Wilburn. “I pray, meditate, mess with my kids and grandkids, husband and I do some inspirational readings. I’m also able to go to the senior citizen center and exercise and socialize with a group of

senior citizens that I enjoy.”

Those who are struggling to find help can call 2-1-1, a free referral and information helpline that connects people to a wide range of health and human services, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


Recognizing Signs of Depression

Depression is more than just a passing bad or low mood. Rather, it is a condition in which one may experience persistent sadness, withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities, difficulty sleeping, physical discomfort and a lack of energy. The Centers for Disease Control report that risk factors for later in life depression include widowhood, physical illness, impaired functional status, heavy alcohol consumption – and that these factors are more prevalent in those who have low educational attainment, less than high school.

Depression is one of the most successfully treated mental illnesses with highly effective treatments available for depression in late life, and most depressed older adults can improve dramatically. For more information, see: The State of Mental Health and Aging in America at

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