Can mental health system meet growing demand for older patients?

    America’s aging population is growing, and mental health care providers are struggling to keep up. About one in five Americans over the age of 65 have an addiction or mental health issue — and there aren’t enough psychiatrists to treat them.

    Mental health professionals are trying to address the changing needs of a growing older population. An example of these changes can be found in schizophrenia diagnoses.

    Schizophrenia was long described as a mental illness that was diagnosed only in young people, and patients who showed first symptoms later in life did not get that diagnosis. But the new psychiatric diagnostic manual no longer has age-related criteria for schizophrenia.

    “Doing away with a separation between older and younger levels the playing field,” said Daniel Weintraub, a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania Institute of Aging. “It increases the likelihood that older patients with psychotic disorders will get help.”

    However, a shortage of psychiatrists to treat aging patients could complicate access to treatment.

    “Pennsylvania has a significant aging population,” explained Deb Shoemaker, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Society. “Primary care physicians should be equipped with the appropriate tools to screen for mental health issues.”

    Shoemaker added that primary care doctors and psychiatrists must work together to treat mental illness in older Americans.

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