More than 3.5 million older people in the UK experiencing mental health problems do not have access to satisfactory services and support, the final report from The UK Inquiry into Mental Health and Well­Being in Later Life – a major independent inquiry supported by Age Concern – has found.

The report blames a mental health pandemic and an “inadequate government response” for the shortcomings in care, and makes 35 recommendations for improving mental health services.

According to the Inquiry, the government must take the lead on better mental health services for the elderly and “over-turn years of under-funding,” and it calls for action to help eliminate age discrimination in mental health and improve housing, health and social care services, amongst other things.

The report also reveals that not only is the proportion of elderly people suffering from mental health problems much larger than previously thought, but that the nature of these problems is much wider too.

One in four over 65s depressed

Its findings indicate that around one in four people aged 65 and over and two in five over 85 years old have depression or serious symptoms of depression, and one in five over 80 suffer dementia. Furthermore, it says, older people with mental health problems are often “ignored and receive little support,” and services for people growing older with longstanding mental health problems are also poor.

"Mental health problems in later life are not an inevitable part of ageing,” commented Dr June Crown, Chairman of the Inquiry. “They are often preventable and treatable, and action to improve the lives of older people who experience mental health difficulties is long overdue. Current services for older people with mental health problems are inadequate in range, in quantity and in quality.”

She went on to say: “We need a radical shift to improve services and support for older people with mental health problems. At a time when the government is aiming to make the most of older people’s contributions, the neglect of older people’s mental health needs represents a waste of human potential that we simply cannot afford."

Economic strain

Without updating current policy and practice, the situation will only get worse, The Inquiry warns. It forecasts that, by 2021, 3.5 million older people will have symptoms of depression and cases of dementia will hit 1 million; by 2051, these figures will soar to 5 million and 1.7 million, respectively.

“By 2021, the unmet mental health needs of older people will cost £230 billion per year in lost workers, £15 billion from the absence of older carers, £5 billion from lost volunteers, £4 billion from lost grandparents and £245 billion from lost consumers,” the report forecasts.

Chris Ball, Chair of the Mental Health Network's older people sub-group, welcomed the report: "It is vital that we tackle the issues of discrimination and stigma in mental health at all levels - both in the context of provision and in wider society,” he said, adding: "The Mental Health Network will be working hard with members to make sure the work of the report is taken forward for the benefit of service users - especially in the areas of commissioning, care homes and acute hospitals."

First dementia strategy

But it seems that the government is starting to take the problem very seriously. Earlier this month, it unveiled the UK’s first ever national strategy for dementia, marking “a real step forward in policy” for the condition, said Neil Hunt, Chief Executive of the Alzheimer’s Society.

According to the government, it currently sinks around £3.3 billion every year into dementia services, but it has identified three areas in need of more attention: raising the disease’s profile and creating greater awareness; early diagnosis by clinicians so that families can receive appropriate support; and improving services so that people receive treatment and support to maximise quality of life.