Pandemic ‘perfect storm’ for older people’s mental heath, says watchdog

Commission criticises ‘serious under-resourcing’ of community services

The watchdog says there are currently 1.2 dedicated acute mental health beds for every 100,000 older people in the country. Photograph: iStock

The watchdog says there are currently 1.2 dedicated acute mental health beds for every 100,000 older people in the country. Photograph: iStock

 

Older people in Ireland are suffering a mental health “perfect storm” stirred up by the pandemic and an alarming dearth of services, the State’s mental health watchdog has warned.

The Mental Health Commission has criticised a “serious under-resourcing” of community mental health services and lack of hospital beds for older people most severely affected by the likes of depression, dementia and anxiety.

In its latest report, the watchdog says there are currently 1.2 dedicated acute mental health beds for every 100,000 older people in the country. Northern Ireland has eight times more.

Dr Susan Finnerty, the commission’s inspector of mental health services and author of the report, said the lack of services, coupled with the Covid-19 outbreak, has created “a perfect storm for the mental health of older people”.

“In addition to carrying the highest mortality and morbidity risk from Covid-19, they also experience social distancing, isolation and a heightened perception of the risk of death and illness,” she said. “Isolation is strongly linked to depression, anxiety and cognitive decline, and reduces resilience factors such as self-worth, sense of purpose and feeling valued.”

About 15 per cent of adults in Ireland aged 60 and over suffer from a mental illness, including depression, dementia, anxiety, alcohol dependence and schizophrenia.

Demand among students

Meanwhile, demand for mental health support in some universities has doubled as students struggle with isolation and the shift to online learning.

Prof Patrick Prendergast, Provost of Trinity College Dublin, told an Oireachtas education committee on Thursday a lack of personal contact with other students was affecting the mental health and wellbeing of many students.

“Personal contact is what students most of all are missing . . . These are young students, ranging in age from 18 to mid-20s most. It’s a time of life when they should be meeting others,” he said. “We find that there is a much greater need for psychiatric support and counselling. The head of our health service says numbers with mental health issues have doubled .”

Earlier, a GP and coroner in Co Donegal said there is “a terrible problem” of suicide among young people, particularly men, in Ireland.

Dr Denis McCauley, who is chair of the Irish Medical Organisation’s GP committee, told the Oireachtas sub-committee on mental health he has also seen an increase in suicides by young women this year.

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