New website for seniors struggling with depression

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Baycrest Health Sciences has launched a mental health website designed specifically for older adults who are struggling with depression.

Created by Baycrest’s Chief of Psychiatry, Dr. Robert Madan, the site (www.baycrest.org/mentalhealth) is both a multi-media resource and a source of encouragement for older adults who are struggling with or recovering from illness, and their families.

There are many biological, psychological and sociological factors unique to older adults that play a role in late-life depression. In older age, people can start to suffer many losses. It could be the loss of a spouse, loss of employment and the friendship of co-workers, loss of identity after retirement, loss of cherished friends who pass on, the loss of one’s own health and mobility due to chronic disease or serious illness, or the loss of one’s cherished home with the transfer to a nursing home. Any of these losses can be emotionally devastating and trigger the onset of depression.

“The website helps users understand late-life depression in a way that is friendly, engaging and positive,” says Dr. Madan. “We want people to understand that depression is not a normal part of aging that is to be expected and endured.”

The importance of reaching out for help is emphasized throughout the website. Despite the difficult subject matter, the site gives visitors a sense of hope that if they are experiencing depression they can recover with the help of a doctor and the right treatment. This message is driven home not only through the words of the medical experts in short video vignettes, but also through the candid and powerful stories of two people who have experienced late-life depression.

Evelyn Burns-Weinrib shares her experience with depression and a suicide attempt. “I was 78 and I felt I was losing control of my health and my life,” she said in her story that appears on the website. “As an independent woman I felt as though my declining health would leave me with nothing positive to look forward to.”

Now, two years later, Burns-Weinrib has recovered. “I am sharing my story because I am now an advocate for seniors’ mental health issues. I want the discussion of depression put on the table, not kept under it,” she says. “I will talk about it whenever and wherever I can.”

Burns-Weinrib is so dedicated to this mission, she was moved to make a generous donation to help with the website’s development.  The project has also received funding from the AFP Innovation Fund and the Geoffrey H. Wood Foundation.

Burns-Weinrib’s story touches on another important aspect of late-life depression addressed on the website:  the issue of stigma. Dr. Madan says this is particularly important for older adults. “Public awareness campaigns have helped dispel many of the common myths about depression and mental illness and increased the general public’s understanding that these are medical illnesses just like diabetes or heart disease,” he explains. “But this is a recent development and many older adults have grown up with the idea that depression is something you can’t talk about openly because it’s perceived as a personal failing or a weakness.”

Visitors to the website will find a wealth of information on the causes of depression symptoms and latest treatments. The treatments section covers medications, different types of psychotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy, and explanations of how each of these treatments is used and chosen by patients and healthcare professionals.

Visitors can watch videos where experts in geriatric mental health deliver information in a style that is warm, personable and consumer friendly. “Using this multi-media approach, we’re introducing viewers to physicians and psychologists like the ones they would meet when they seek help,” says Dr. Madan. “We’re demystifying the process and giving the viewer an idea of what they can expect.”

The site also tackles what is perhaps the most challenging subject — suicide and self-harm, an important issue in geriatric mental health. In Canada, adults 65 and older have the highest suicide rate of any age group.

“It was important for us to cover this topic,” says Dr. Madan. “We wanted to explain to people that thoughts of suicide and death are common symptoms of depression and that if they are experiencing these symptoms they need to talk to someone and get help from a health care professional as soon as they can.”

Dr. Madan says the site will be a useful tool for physicians to use in their practice and make their patients aware of this important supplemental resource. “We know that many people are looking for medical information online now. It’s my hope that individuals with late-life depression and their family members  can find this site and understand that there’s no need to suffer,” he adds. “With the help of health care professionals, seniors who are experiencing depression can find effective treatment that works for them to achieve remission of their symptoms.”

Dr. Madan hopes to expand the site in future to include information modules on anxiety as well as bi-polar disorder, dementia, and other topics.