How to Prepare Social Workers to Address Older Adults’ Mental Health

By: Sadhna Diwan, Ph.D., Director of the Center on Healthy Aging in Multicultural Populations (CHAMP)

(This blog originally appeared with the John A. Hartford Foundation)

When I was in graduate school (a very long time ago!), I recall taking a number of courses in the mental health specialization in the MSW program. There was almost no aging-related content in any of the courses except for a lecture on “Organic Brain Syndrome.” The limits of the mental health curriculum became painfully apparent when I got my first job at a community mental health center. I saw several older clients, some with a diagnosis of chronic schizophrenia, some with serious chronic diseases like COPD, some of whom were depressed, some who drank alcohol, and some who had started to have difficulties with performing their activities of daily living. I embarked on a very steep and long learning curve as I slowly began to learn more about aging, mental health, and the service systems that operated in their own silos. The “aging services” system was separate from the mental health system and neither was well equipped to address the mental health needs of older persons. Fast forward to the present and we find that the majority of social work schools still have very limited course content on understanding and addressing the interplay of health and mental issues among older people and unsurprisingly, the service systems have not changed very much either.

Thankfully, both the John A. Hartford Foundation and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recently released reports highlighting the critical need for practitioners in geriatric mental health services. Both reports describe the need for increasing the number of care providers who are properly trained in diagnosing and treating mental health issues among older clients. While educators and service providers may operate in their own silos (health care, mental health care, aging services), our older clients or patients do not. They bring with them a tangled web of issues that impact myriad aspects of their daily lives.

I feel fortunate to have had the chance to make a difference in improving geriatric mental health training as the PI of the Gero-Ed Center’s Master’s Advanced Curriculum (MAC) Project. The MAC Project brought together a diverse group of social work faculty with expertise in mental health, health, and substance use who developed outstanding educational materials that are being used to train current and future social workers on geriatric mental health issues. One teaching resource that would have been helpful for my own clinical work many years ago is a series of videos, case studies, and evidence-supported lecture notes addressing differential mental health assessments (depression, cognition, substance use) for a diverse group of seniors presenting with chronic illnesses (COPD, diabetes, ischemic strokes).

Given the demographic shifts, the changing practice needs, and the development of accessible and high-quality teaching resources, there really is no good reason why students today should graduate without knowing much about aging. Social work faculty who use these teaching resources have noted how easy they are to use. In my own courses, students rave about the excellent quality of the learning gained through these resources, and I get the benefit of great teaching evaluations! We invite you to join us and do your part in addressing the critical gap in training future professionals in geriatric mental health. Please visit the MAC Project website and select a few of the excellent resources to include in your courses. Many older adults and their families will be thankful that you did!

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