Mental health advocates have shared concerns for the welfare of people aged over 60, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues across the world.
Uncertainty surrounding public health and the ongoing cancellation of non-essential gatherings are among the chief concerns for Riverina Bluebell chairman Allen Hunt.
"Identity is the big thing for people in this age bracket. [For example], they start to think 'I'm the guy who runs the men's shed' and suddenly that's just taken away from them and they're left feeling purposeless," Mr Hunt said.
The constant barrage of rhetoric around the economic crisis and the need to "keep the elderly safe", Mr Hunt said, can add to the pressure of feeling as though they are a "drain on society".
To combat this untrue thought process, Mr Hunt recommends gaining clarity by stepping away from the messages and reassessing their meaning.
"We can make things mean whatever we want in our own minds. Rain, for example, that might be the best day of a farmer's life because it means his crops will grow. But it could be the worst day of a bride's because it's going to ruin her wedding day," he said.
"It can feel like we're surrounded by negative news that we need to process all at once instead of logging it all one at a time. Especially if you're staying home more and spending more time in front of the television.
"Human beings are social. Isolation is hard on us."
To understand the dramatic effects of COVID-19 on mental health in people over 60 years old, Charles Sturt University researcher Professor Suzanne McLaren is seeking participants to a month-long survey.
"What a lot of people don't know is that the highest suicide rate is among older men, in fact, 30 per cent of adults who die by suicide are men over 60," Professor McLaren said.
"We talk about the tragedy of a younger person dying but older people are forgotten. Suicide is sad for anyone at any age."
With a background in aged care health, Professor McLaren said the first step in turning the tide on the staggering statistics is to "educate health professionals to be looking for the signs in older people".
"When an older person is struggling, we tend to dismiss it and say, 'well, of course, they're sad, their health is deteriorating', or something along those lines. We explain it away," she said.
"Conditions like depression are treatable in older Australians, as they are in younger people too."
It is also a matter of empowering older Australians with the ability to talk about their struggles more openly in the knowledge that they will be listened to and respected.
Put simply, Professor McLaren said, "talking about this is not a sign of weakness at all".
"Mental health literacy tends to be low in older adults. If they don't think it's a problem then they're less likely to seek help for it," she said.
Anecdotally, Professor McLaren fears mental health struggles are on the rise for older people, who are more often than not, "suffering in silence".
"The issue we have at the moment is we're saying it's in your best interest to distance yourself. That's a physical health concern, but it doesn't assist our mental health at all," she said.
"There's also this feeling of being a 'perceived burden', thinking 'I'm relying on my children for things I used to be able to do, I'm of no use'. That leads to thoughts of being worthless, and it's untrue."
During the 2003 SARS outbreak in Hong Kong, Professor McLaren said, there was an overwhelming increase in suicides for people aged over 60.
"The number one reason for that rise was the social distancing that saves lives but hurts mental health," she said.
"You shut down to stop the spread, but the shut down impacts mental health. It's an unenviable balancing act. No-one wins here and there is no perfect solution."
Over eight weeks from the beginning of August, Professor McLaren is aiming to collect as many surveys of mental health as possible, in order to understand and better navigate a path to care options.
It has been supported by a $27,000 funding grant from Charles Sturt's $200,000 COVID-19 research grants pool.
To participate in the survey, respondents can visit Research.Net website until Monday 31 August 2020 or obtain a print copy by phoning Professor McLaren on (02) 6582 9459.
While mental health strategies are becoming more commonplace for younger people, Mr Hunt worries that those in the older age group are being left behind.
Given the difficulties that arise in talking about hardships, he recommends reframing the conversation and using "the right language".
"I heard someone once talking about mental health with farmers and using what I call 'farmer language'," he said.
"So, you might not ask 'are you feeling depressed', but you could say 'are you a bit bogged'? Anyone on the land will know that when you're bogged, you need a mate to come and help pull you out, and there's no shame in it."
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