Report: Older adults face racial disparities in mental health and care

Report: Older adults face racial disparities in mental health and care

A new white paper from the Brookings Institution shows racial disparities in rates of mental illness, substance abuse and suicide among older adults. The links between mental health, functional disability and financial disadvantage may also make aging worse, the report finds.

Non-Hispanic blacks and lower-income older adults have the highest risk of mental illness and substance abuse, with women more likely to have mental illness and men more likely to have a substance use disorder, the authors wrote in the report published this month.

The prevalence of mental illness was largely the same in 2010 and 2019, and in 2021 (the pandemic interrupted data collection), according to data used for the report. People ages 85 and older were most likely to have depression, while adults ages 65 to 74 were most likely to have alcohol abuse, the data showed. Men had higher suicide rates compared to women across all age groups. Women ages 85 and older had the lowest suicide rates and men had the highest in that age group.

Social isolation, functional limitations, and economic insecurity appear to play a major role in poor mental health and psychological distress. People with depression are more likely to feel lonely, live alone, and have smaller social networks. People with functional limitations are more likely to be depressed and to abuse alcohol. Depression rates increase with increasing levels of functional limitations, and rates are highest among people with lower incomes and functional limitations.

Other statistics from the report: People with more wealth have lower rates of depression compared to people with lower incomes, regardless of disability level. This shows that more wealth likely gives people access to more support, the report noted. Also, people who experienced a serious mental illness in the past year are only likely to have Medicare coverage. Women, non-Hispanic whites and people with higher incomes are more likely to use mental health services, the data showed.

“There are large disparities across race, ethnicity, gender, and income in rates of mental illness, substance abuse, and suicide,” the authors wrote. “Moreover, there is a significant connection between mental health, physical disability, and economic disadvantage—all of which can exacerbate the challenges associated with aging.”