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New Jersey’s Mental Health Urgency in Older Adults

By: Audrey Meng, Rutgers Student Intern

People don’t mind getting old. People mind feeling old. There has been attention brought to the care of older adults and their mental well-being recognizing the effects of social isolation and the impact of COVID. But COVID was not the start, source, or end of mental health needs for older adults.

Since April 2020, between 25-30% of all adults, ages 65 and above, suffer from a debilitating mental health disorder (National Council of Aging). This percentage, equivalent to 20 million people, is only a reported diagnosis and has the potential to be higher due to those who are undiagnosed. Governor Phil Murphy once said, New Jersey is a state “committed to the investment of all people, not just some”, yet older adults are excluded from New Jersey’s expanding mental health programs. In 2024, no new proposals or new initiatives are proposed to address the elderly’s growing mental illness crisis, even when the state has one of the most densely populated 65 and older populations.

The first line of defense in treating mental health comes from our providers in the healthcare system. Providers and medical personnel are in the position to provide the most direct, one-on-one care to treat older adults, yet several feel unconfident and under-supported when doing so. Given the fact that the over-65 population in New Jersey will grow to 19.9% of the state’s total population by 2030, it is important that providers be educated in geriatric care for all aspects of health, including mental health.
Providers need updated trainings and tools like mental health screenings specifically for this population to accurately identify the presence and severity of a mental health disorder. Medical professionals oftentimes dismiss or misdiagnose mental health symptoms as an inevitable part of aging, and therefore may not see signs of depression or anxiety as something to be treated. As documented in leading research by the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention, 80% of older adults have at least one chronic health condition, and 50% have two or more, so they are already under the care of providers to treat those conditions. Why not include screening and treatment for mental health?

New Jersey is a state that has made mental health education and treatment a priority. Governor Murphy created a playbook called “Strengthening Youth Mental Health- A Governor’s Playbook” and strengthened the relationship with the Department of Education for K-12 schools. The Department of Health has also offered support to expecting mothers and new parents with perinatal mood disorders (PMD) through the Maternal and Child Health Consortia (MCHC) organization. While the state is in the process of reforming mental health care, it also needs to include a focus on the over-65 population to foster a more inclusive and transparent mental health environment.

New Jersey’s Department of Health, the Department of Human Services and Division of Aging Services can work together to look further into how mental health for older adults is currently assessed and tested, and how to include older adults in new, expanded programs like those recently expanded for youth, students, and postpartum mental health. Mental health screenings were created for a younger population, therefore confounding factors like the degree of social isolation and life status have not been taken into account, which can potentially lead to misdiagnosis. Mental health care, especially in older adults, is more subjective than physical health, so not every person will adapt to and cope with

mental illness in the same way. Older adults may struggle with their sense of independence and purpose; it is important to help them feel seen, heard and included.
New Jersey has committed to being an Age-Friendly State. Including the needs of older adults in the important and impressive expansions of mental health services, instead of leaving them out, is an important step to making New Jersey a great state at every age and stage of life.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). “Alzheimer’s Disease and Healthy Aging”. https://www.cdc.gov/aging/olderadultsandhealthyaging/depression-and-aging.html#:~:tex t=Older%20adults%20are%20often%20misdiagnosed,as%20something%20to%20be%20 treated.

Miller, J. (2022, May 18). “How to Improve Access to Mental Health and Substance Use Care for Older Adults”. National Council of Aging.
https://www.ncoa.org/article/how-to-improve-access-to-mental-health-and-substance-use- care-for-older-adults

Wu, S.Y. (n.d.). “Population and Labor Force Projections for New Jersey: 2010 to 2030”.
Department of Labor and Workforce Development, State of New Jersey. https://nj.gov/labor/labormarketinformation/assets/PDFs/content/njsdc/2013WU%20Pop LFProj2030.pdf