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Seniors Mental Health Policy Lens Toolkit

Purpose

The Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens has been designed to promote and support the mental health and well-being of all seniors.

  • It is a set of questions to identify (or predict) any direct or indirect negative repercussions of policies, programs and services (in place or proposed), on seniors’ mental health.
  • It supports the development or analysis of any policy or program relevant to seniors, including those that do not directly target either mental health or seniors
  • Its implementation has been evaluated as a best practice in policy design to support seniors’ mental health.

Who Should Use the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens

The Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens can be used by policy makers and analysts, program managers, evaluators, service providers, seniors’ organizations and advocates, researchers, and educators.

When to Use the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens

The Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens can be applied, for a variety of purposes, to policies and programs that directly or indirectly affect seniors.

  • To guide the development of new programs and policies
  • To review existing policies and programs for potential unintended negative effects
  • To identify gaps in current policies and programs for seniors
  • To evaluate policies and programs from the perspective of seniors’ values and needs
  • As a guide to developing a response to an issue or need
  • To raise awareness about the mental health challenges that seniors in general, and marginalized seniors in particular, may face.
  • To build awareness about the influence of policies and programs on seniors mental health
  • To build a shared understanding of seniors’ values and concerns, and of factors that can influence their mental health
  • To complement quality assurance programs, accreditation processes and program reviews.

Organization of This Toolkit

There are 4 sections in this Toolkit:

  1. A rationale is provided for why a Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens is needed.
  2. The development of the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens and its evaluation, is described.
  3. The Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens is presented with directions for its application.
  4. Three appendices provide (i) a guide to interpreting the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens questions that incorporates examples of how the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens has been applied in a variety of sectors; (ii) feedback and tips for applying the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens from those who have used it, and (iii) an informative discussion of seniors’ perspective related to supporting their mental health, and of the values, principles and key concepts that inform the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens questions.

1. Rationale for Development of the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens

Several concerns have led to the need for a lens to assess policy from a seniors’ mental health perspective, each of which can be addressed through the use of the Seniors Mental Health Policy Lens.

Aging Population

Older adults experience unique physical, psychological and social changes that individually and together may challenge their mental health, sometimes resulting in mental illness. It is estimated that 1 in 5 persons aged over 65 years has a mental health disorder (Jeste, Alexopoulos, Bartels, Cummings, Gallo, Gottlieb, et al (1999). Given that the percentage of the population over age 65 in Canada is expected to increase from 13% to 22% between 2006 and 2026 (Trucotte & Schellenberg, 2007), there will be an increasing number of seniors who experience mental health problems or are at risk of doing so (Sullivan, Kessler, LeClair, Stolee, & Whitney (2004). The Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens is intended to facilitate social environments (including health services) that promote and support the mental health of older adults, reducing the likelihood of mental health problems occurring.

Lack of Seniors Input into Policy and Programs Affecting Them

Much of the policy that shapes the lives of older adults, directly or indirectly has been developed without the input of older adults, and often without reference to their particular needs. The resulting policies are unlikely to reflect the priorities and values of older adults. Seniors’ mental health has become marginalized as decisions are made to: (1) reduce supports that older adults consider important to their well-being, and (2) re-orient services in a way that detracts from good mental health by, for example, limiting access to services (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2002). The Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens incorporates seniors’ values and perspectives about the mental health challenges of aging, identified through this project and others. The Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens is intended to ensure that policy and programs are assessed against the values and priorities that older adults have identified as important to their mental health.

The Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens is intended to give voice to seniors, highlight seniors’ strengths, support their social inclusion, and promote their mental health.

Marginalization and Stigmatization

Negative stereotyping of older adults fosters and promotes age discrimination and perpetuates ageist attitudes. Ageism may affect the priority given to seniors’ needs (including how they are defined and addressed) by those funding, designing, and delivering health and social services (Estes, 2001).

Seniors who are part of marginalized groups may experience over-lapping stigma. For example, a senior who is gay and First Nations may experience homophobia and racism along with ageism. Additionally, there is a significant stigma attached to mental health problems and illnesses that can further contribute to poor mental health. This stigma is apparent in the inequitable allocation of medical and non-medical resources for older adults with mental illness and addictions in comparison to other illnesses such as diabetes and cancer.

If biases in policies are unrecognized, this can lead to inadequate planning and design of legislation, programs, services, and interventions, costly in both human and economic terms.

The Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens is intended to identify biases in policy that may lead to negative impacts on the mental health of older adults, including those who are members of marginalized groups.

Biomedical Framing of Seniors’ Mental Health

Current policy (and funding) related to seniors’ mental health is typically situated within a biomedical model which emphasizes individual pathology and leads to services and programs that focus primarily on the diagnosis and treatment of illness (MacCourt, Tuokko, and Tierney, 2002). Although the needs for many seniors are chronic and often related to disability or deficits in their social support system or environment, there is a narrow focus on cure and acute care. Relatively little emphasis (or money) has been put into non-medical interventions or community-based services to promote or support seniors’ mental health, such as programs to reduce social isolation or to support caregivers. The newly formed Mental Health Commission of Canada (2008) advocates taking a comprehensive approach to mental health and mental illness – one that encompasses re-orienting the mental health system towards a recovery model rooted in person-centred care, respect for individuals’ rights, and that focuses on strengths and capacities. By applying the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens to policies and programs related to health (e.g. discharge policies for acute care; home support services), the non-biomedical factors that contribute to the mental health of older adults are highlighted and can be addressed.

The Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens is intended to facilitate a paradigm shift in the way health and social services are defined, delivered, and funded that will result in increased emphasis on recovery, mental health promotion, and the prevention of mental health problems.

2. Development and Evaluation of the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens Development of the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens

The Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens was developed as part of a national project, Psychosocial Approaches to the Mental Health Challenges of Late Life, awarded to the British Columbia Psychogeriatric Association by the Population Health Fund (MacCourt and Tuokko, 2005).

The Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens was designed to reflect the values and perspectives of older adults and to facilitate their inclusion in policy design and analysis. To gather this information twelve focus groups were conducted with older adults across Canada (in English, French and Chinese). Participants were asked to identify what they considered the challenges of aging to their well-being and mental health, how they meet these challenges and what is helpful or unhelpful to them. In addition, findings from other pertinent Canadian studies of older adults were examined for seniors’ perspectives about the factors influencing their emotional well-being/mental health. The development of the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens also took into consideration: the population health determinants, principles of mental health promotion and of healthy aging policy, and the values and core principles embedded in the Guidelines for Elderly Mental Health Care Planning for Best Practices for Health Authorities (B.C. Ministry of Health, 2002), the National Framework for Aging: A Policy Guide (Health Canada, 1998), and the Framework for a Mental Health Strategy for Canada (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2008). Each of these components is discussed in Appendix 3.

Evaluation of the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens

The implementation of the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens has been evaluated at 15 sites across sectors (i.e., in government, seniors’ organizations, health care, education and programs for older adults) throughout Canada. The pilot studies have demonstrated that the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens is a practical, relevant and useful tool for designing policies, identifying gaps in existing policy, educating future health professionals, guiding the development of new programs, and evaluating service delivery, from the perspective of seniors’ values. Participants found it valuable that the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens is principle-based which allowed them to interpret its questions in relation to their context, while retaining the integrity of the tool. It was noted that use of the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens prompted the inclusion of seniors and their advocates in designing and reviewing programs and policies that affect them. The Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens is designed as a process tool and has proven valuable in helping stakeholders, with varied perspectives and interests related to older adults’ well-being, to find common ground so that they can work together effectively. The process of applying the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens has been reported to develop awareness about the factors that influence seniors’ well-being and mental health. Participants who used the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens in health care settings found that it fit well with practices they already undertake (e.g., quality assurance programs, accreditation) making it relatively easy to integrate into their work. Educators found that the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens provided their students (future health professionals) with a critical lens for examining issues related to seniors’ well-being. The experiences of the pilot sites in promoting and implementing the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens has been used to re-develop the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens as a best practice in program and policy design. Feedback from the pilot groups about the strengths and weaknesses of the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens has been incorporated into this Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens Toolkit which was then presented at a number of conferences, where further feedback was received. Next, a symposium was held to share experiences about applying the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens and to identify the benefits and challenges of doing so. This information was then used to refine the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens and to design materials to support the implementation of the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens in diverse settings and for different purposes, all found in this Toolkit. Examples of how the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens has been applied are incorporated into the Guide to the Application of the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens section of this Toolkit (Appendix 1). Appendix 2 provides feedback and tips for applying the Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens from those who have used it.

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