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U.S. Unprepared for Behavioral Health Needs of Aging Adults, NIM Warns

A report from the National Institute of Medicine finds the U.S. healthcare system understaffed and inadequately trained to respond to the mental health and addiction treatment needs of older Americans.

The U.S. healthcare system is understaffed and unprepared to deal with the rising number of aging baby boomers in need of mental health and substance use treatment, according to a National Institute of Medicine report.  Between 14 percent to 20 percent of older Americans – some 5.6 million to 8 million of the elderly -- have one or more mental health conditions or problems stemming from substance misuse or abuse. These aging adults, argue the report writers, will likely have difficulty finding treatment or go undiagnosed without a significant increase in the number of service providers able to identify and treat these conditions.

"There is a conspicuous lack of national attention to ensuring that there is a large enough health-care workforce trained to care for older adults with mental health and substance use conditions," said committee chair Dan G. Blazer, J.P. Gibbons Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and vice chair for faculty development, Duke University Medical Center.  "This report is a wake-up call that we need to prepare now or our older population and their extended families will suffer the consequences."

Depression and cognitive disorders and dementia are among the most common mental health disorders in this population, while increases in medication misuse and illicit drug abuse have emerged as significant problems as well.

The report’s recommendations include a call for a coordinated effort to expand the workforce treating geriatric behavioral health, redesign of Medicare and Medicaid payment rules to guarantee coverage of counseling and other services, and expanded funding to support research and training. The report called for accrediting organizations to require all providers and agencies treating the elderly be trained to recognize symptoms related to these conditions.

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