Proponents seek money for geriatric mental health

TOPEKA — The issue of suicide among senior citizens receives little attention, and will likely receive no additional funding in this legislative session, say both House members and advocates of mental health among the elderly.

A proposal to give money to area agencies on aging to promote mental health evaluations and treatment of elderly clientswon't get far this session because of the cost, said Rep. Bob Bethell, R-Alden, chairman of the House Committee on Aging and Long Term Care.

"It's definitely a needed issue," said Bethell, before a hearing today on House Bill 2047, which would create a geriatric mental health program estimated to cost in excess of $1 million. "We had a similar bill in committee last year, but with the fiscal note attached to it, it's going to have a hard time getting anywhere."

One of the most alarming aspects of mental health needs is the rate of suicide among senior citizens. Proponents of the legislation pointed to statistics showing that people age 65 and older account for about 13 percent of the population but almost a fifth of all suicides.

Elderly white men are the most at-risk for suicide among senior citizens. Caucasian men who are more than 80 years old are six times more likely than any other demographic group to commit senior suicide, said Rick Cagan, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"As the elderly population grows, this set of issues is becoming more pronounced," Cagan told the committee. "Depression is a large problem as people age, yet it's not the outcome of the natural process of aging. Yet 90 percent of older persons who have depression do not get treatment for this disorder."

Bethell noted that the rate of suicide among the elderly, which far exceeds that among teens, doesn't evoke the same concern.

"We expect the elderly to die, but we don't expect the young to die," Bethell said, responding to the statistics presented in the hearing. "We're a youth-oriented society, and so this issue isn't seen with the same alarm."

The bill before the committee would send state money to local agencies on aging to promote mental health evaluations and treatment of elderly clients at home. Issues of transportation, physical decline and stigma all prevent many aging Kansans from receiving mental health care before it's too late, advocates said.

"There's a stigma about mental health among seniors," said Jim Snyder, speaker of the Silver Haired Legislature, a group that advocates for the elderly. "In many cases, they just won't go to a facility to get help, because they don't want to lose their independence, or they're worried what the neighbors will think."

Snyder says elderly Kansans could have mental health issues identified and addressed while still living in their homes, saving money in the long run by prolonging their health and independence.

"In this program, the agencies in the areas can locate professionals in those areas," said Snyder. "The money would be to pay the professionals to travel to the clients' homes or to the nursing home. Because otherwise, if they don't go to the doctor's office or somewhere to get help, then they just go without."

Proponents of the legislation are not oblivious to the state's financial condition, but say they must continue to sow seeds for the future.

"It has a fiscal note of more than $1 million to do it properly. That's what's standing in the way right now," said Snyder. "We're just making sure the need is before the Legislature, and someday they'll find the money. Who knows? It could be (today)."

Geraldine Flaharty, D-Wichita, expressed her frustration with cuts in mental health care, while praising work done in Wichita on behalf of the elderly.

"There's no question there's a need, but frankly I don't see anything positive happening this year," said Flaharty. "There's just no political will for raising taxes or taking the steps necessary to fund this program. So I don't see any hope of passing the bill, although I would be in favor of it.

"Senior centers (in the Wichita area) are providing services that are very good for people's physical and mental health. But those organizations are facing their own financial difficulties," Flaharty said.