With an increasing number of digital distractions and people choosing to interact face-to-face far less, recent decades have witnessed a massive decline in mental wellness across every generation – including Baby Boomers. According to the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing from The Australian Bureau of Statistics, an estimated 45 per cent of all Australians have experienced some form of mental illness in their lifetime.
While mental health issues such as anxiety and depression are more visible nowadays compared to when Boomers were growing up, older Australians are not immune to ill mental health, and social aspects such as loneliness can leave people struggling with day to day life and feeling unsure where to turn for answers. So, in light of World Suicide Prevention Day, Starts at 60 spoke to Dain Heer who holds a PhD in Chiropractic, is an internationally renowned author, speaker and mental health expert about how to deal with and overcome those waves of depression you might experience.
While research and general understanding has improved in recent years, Heer says the stigma attached to mental illness is still very much real, adding: “We have a lot more awareness now, but still have a lot of stigma attached to anything that’s not seen as being good, being perfect, being right. And even though we have a lot more awareness as these things go on, we don’t have any more willingness to talk about it.”
Not only is there a lack of desire to discuss mental illness, there’s also a disconnect between those who deal with issues like depression or anxiety and those who don’t, with Heer explaining that those with depression have a heightened level of sensitivity that someone who has no experience a mental illness may struggle to fully comprehend.
“For somebody who tips over into depression and mental illness, their sensitivity is up at 100,” he says. “So normal people walking around don’t understand them and don’t get that this person has a level of sensitivity that if they could be shown how to use it is actually a gift and is a level of awareness that is phenomenal.”
Interestingly, as we grow more interconnected through the internet, the way that modern society operates can actually be seen as one of the biggest factors contributing to social isolation. The digital age has hugely changed society over the years and, despite introducing many positive aspects, it has also closed the chapter to a more socially comfortable world.
“I think we live in a society where we’re not really taught to interact with people. Up until the last 40 or 50 years – people used to actually talk to each other,” Heer says. “They would form groups of friends and have common interests and at the very least they would have conversations with people around them and nowadays it’s not common but it’s also not sought out. We’re not taught to seek the company of other people, and so we live in a world where it seems like social isolation or isolation from one another is more than norm than the exception at this point.”
Many older generations find themselves in this exact situation where as a retiree, they may no longer have a reason to leave the house each day, as well as having no routine, meaning they are often left with a dwindling amount of regular visitors. This often unwilling removal from society is one of the biggest triggers for feelings of loneliness which can easily lead to depression.
“People over 60 have this wisdom about the world and nobody is asking them about it. They’ve lived this entire life and they have so much awareness about the way the world works… But what tends to happen for older people is you get to a certain age and then all their conversations are about medications, surgeries, physical problems. And it’s like at a certain point they just start planning to die and they talk about it as though that’s the only thing that’s occupying their minds,” he says.
“So when you get a group of people together and they all align and agree in that same direction – it’s really tough to feel good in your body, it’s really tough to get happy and it’s really tough to get a sense that there is a life and there is a future.”
And although this mind set can be hard to escape from – Heer says it’s going to be a big push, but reintegrating into society through the right channels can feel like an “infusion of fresh energy and possibility rather than this downwards spiral”. There’s no shortage of ways to get back out there with everything from coffee meet-ups to book clubs available all over the country, but Heer suggests one often overlooked strategy is to find a way to share your story and knowledge of the world with those who need it.
“One of the things I suggest they do is find some place to mentor somebody who’s younger or at least be around younger people,” he suggests. “Mentoring possibilities is one, writing a book about your life and experiences is another. There’s so many ways in which we can change the perspective that most people aren’t looking at.”
Social interaction can be one of the biggest determiners on mental wellbeing and Heer says he wants people to know that they themselves have the tools to give a “different reference point for being alive”. Like many mental health professionals, Heer urges people to change their negative perspective on mental illness and encourages us to tear down the stigma that has so long been attached to this everyday issue.
“The number one thing to recognise is that you’re not wrong and there are ways of changing these things now. We really need to let people know that it’s not something they have to live with or be stuck with forever.”