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Effective Treatment of Depression in Older African Americans: Overcoming Barriers. Ruth Shim, MD, MPH Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Associate Director of Behavioral Health, National Center for Primary Care. Objectives.

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effective treatment of depression in older african americans overcoming barriers

Effective Treatment of Depression in Older African Americans: Overcoming Barriers

Ruth Shim, MD, MPH

Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

Associate Director of Behavioral Health, National Center for Primary Care


To review the epidemiology of late life depression

To discuss racial/ethnic disparities in late life depression

To describe the depression care process

To examine evidenced-based treatment of depression in older adults

overview of depression
Overview of Depression

The leading cause of disability worldwide

4th leading cause of total disease burden

16.2% lifetime prevalence in the United States (conservative estimate)

6.6% 12 month prevalence in the US

late life depression
Late-Life Depression
  • Depression is the most prevalent psychiatric diagnosis among the elderly
  • Prevalence in adults aged 65 and older in 2004:
    • 17% of women
    • 11% of men
  • Depression in elderly leads to increased disability, morbidity, and risk of suicide, poor adherence with medical treatments, increased mortality from medical illnesses
late life depression by setting
Late-Life Depression by Setting
  • Prevalence of major depression in older Americans
    • Community Settings (1-3%)
    • Primary Care Settings (5-9%)
    • Institutional Settings (12-30%)
  • Depression is more prevalent among younger adults, but older adults are less likely to be identified and treated
diagnosing depression in older adults
Diagnosing Depression in Older Adults
  • Depression should not be considered just a normal part of aging
  • Depression in older adults may look different than in younger adults
    • More anxiety and anhedonia symptoms
    • More physical health problems
    • More ambivalence about life
    • “Sadless depression”
  • Depression can be confused with dementia
    • “Pseudodementia”
challenges in late life depression
Challenges in Late-Life Depression

Depression can be confused with the effects of multiple illnesses and the medications used to treat older adults

Comorbidities are the rule, not the exception

Advancing age results in loss of support systems (death of spouse, siblings, retirement, relocation), which increase the risk for depression

disparities in treatment engagement and retention
Disparities in Treatment Engagement and Retention

Older adults seek mental health treatment less than any other age group

50% of adults over 65 are in need of mental health services, only 20% receive treatment

Older adults prefer psychotherapy to pharmacotherapy, but are rarely follow up when given a referral to therapy

barriers for african americans older adults with depression
Barriers for African Americans Older Adults with Depression

African American older adults are less likely to receive an accurate diagnosis of depression compared to White older adults

African American older adults are less likely to receive empirically supported treatments for depression compared to White older adults

barriers for african americans
Barriers for African Americans

African American older adults suffer more psychological distress due to racism, discrimination, poverty, violence, etc.

African American older adults often have fewer psychological, social, and financial resources for coping with stress than White older adults

comorbidities in older adults
Comorbidities in Older Adults
  • Late-Life Depression
    • Doubles the risk of cardiac diseases
    • Increases the risk of death from medical illness
    • Reduces the ability to rehab from medical illness
challenges in elderly underserved low income populations
Challenges in Elderly Underserved, Low Income Populations

Poor access to care


Mild Cognitive Impairment

Dealing with Social Adversity

depression in the elderly and suicide
Depression in the Elderly and Suicide

Increased risk of suicide in elderly

Suicide rate in people ages 80 to 84 is twice that of the general population

Suicide in people age 65 and older is a major public health problem

myths about treating late life depression
Myths about Treating Late Life Depression

Mental health treatment is not effective

There is no cure for depression

Antidepressants are addictive and like street drugs

There are too many side effects with antidepressant medications

african american older adults
African American Older Adults
  • More likely to deal with depression through:
    • Informal support networks
    • Church
    • Primary care physicians
      • Depression in African Americans is less likely to be detected in primary care than it is in whites
cultural coping strategies
Cultural Coping Strategies
  • Self-reliance
    • Keeping busy
    • Staying active in the community
    • Cooking and cleaning
    • Self-medicating – alcohol and nicotine
  • Pushing through the depression
  • Denial
  • Relying upon God
racial ethnic disparities among older adults
Racial/Ethnic Disparities Among Older Adults
  • African Americans seek treatment at half the rate of Whites
  • Attend fewer sessions when they do seek treatment
  • Tend to terminate treatment prematurely
  • Limited research shows African American older adults with depression are less likely:
    • To be in treatment
    • To intend to seek treatment in the future
    • To have ever sought mental health treatment for depression
barriers to treatment
Barriers to Treatment



Cultural Barriers

Fear/Distrust of the Treatment System

Lack of Knowledge

Lack of Insurance/Financial Barriers


African Americans have greater negative attitudes toward seeking treatment (in some studies)

depression care process
Depression Care Process

Step 1: recognition and diagnosis

Step 2: patient education

Step 3: treatment

Step 4: monitoring

step 1 recognition and diagnosis
Step 1: Recognition and Diagnosis
  • The clinician suspects that a patient may be depressed
    • Patient may self-identify
    • Patient may present with somatic complaints
    • Clinician may use screening tools
  • Formal assessment must be done to confirm the diagnosis
step 2 patient education
Step 2: Patient Education

Clinician and staff education patient about depression and the care process

Engage the patient

Determine patient preference for treatment

patient education
Patient Education


Stigma and lack of education will lead many people to avoid treatment

Information about what depression is (and is not)

Steps involved in treatment

How antidepressants work – common questions and answers

What to expect from psychological counseling

step 3 treatment
Step 3: Treatment
  • Clinician and patient select the appropriate management approach
  • Three Phases of Treatment
    • Acute – aims to minimize depressive symptoms and achieve remission
    • Continuation – tries to prevent return of symptoms during current episode
    • Maintenance – focus is to prevent lifetime return of new episodes
treatment for depression in elderly
Treatment for Depression in Elderly



Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)

antidepressant medications
Antidepressant Medications
  • Medications are equally effective in older adults
  • SSRIs are well tolerated
    • May take longer to start working
    • May need to start at lower doses in elderly
  • Tricyclicantidpressants
    • Orthostatic hypotension – increased risk of falls
    • Urinary retention
    • Less well tolerated at effective doses
    • Anticholinergic effects
    • Cardiac side effects
antidepressant medications1
Antidepressant Medications
  • SSRIs
    • Fluoxetine
    • Sertraline
    • Paroxetine
    • Citalopram/Escitalopram
  • SNRIs
    • Venlafaxine/Desvenlafaxine
    • Duloxetine
  • Other Antidepressants
    • Mirtazapine
    • Bupropion
  • In general, many African Americans prefer psychotherapy (in theory) to medication
  • Referral and follow through is often difficult
  • Access to effective therapy is limited in underserved populations
    • Limited providers
    • Insurance limitations
psychotherapy preference
Psychotherapy Preference

Although preferred, few older African Americans use this option

50% copayment for outpatient psychotherapy under Medicare

Less practical – weekly appointments

electroconvulsive therapy
Electroconvulsive Therapy

Extremely effective in older adults

Barriers include access/availability

Effective when medications are contraindicated, or when there has been limited response to medication

Stigma regarding ECT limits availability of this therapy

step 4 monitoring
Step 4: Monitoring

The clinician and support staff monitor compliance with the plan and improvement in symptoms/function

Modify treatment as appropriate

Goal is remission

stepped care

Aims to provide the most effective but least intrusive treatment appropriate to an individual's needs

Assumes that the course of the disorder is monitored and referral to the appropriate level of care is made depending on the person’s difficulties

Each step introduces additional interventions

Higher steps normally assume interventions in previous steps have been offered and/or attempted


Late life depression is a major public health problem that must be addressed

Racial/ethnic disparities exist in the diagnosis and treatment of late life depression

Late-life depression is treatable and recovery is possible

Specific treatment of depression should be tailored to fit the unique needs of African American older adults


1. Alston, M.H., S.H. Rankin, and C.A. Harris, Suicide in African American Elderly. Journal of Black Studies, 1995. 26(1): p. 31-35.

2. Blazer, D.G. and C.F. Hybels, Origins of depression in later life. Psychological medicine, 2005. 35(09): p. 1241-1252.

3. Comer, R.J., Abnormal psychology. 2009: Worth Pub.

4. Conner, K.O., et al., Mental health treatment seeking among older adults with depression: the impact of stigma and race. American Journal of Geriatric Psych, 2010. 18(6): p. 531.

5. Conner, K.O., et al., Barriers to treatment and culturally endorsed coping strategies among depressed African-American older adults. Aging & mental health, 2010. 14(8): p. 971-983.

6. Conner, K.O., et al., Attitudes and beliefs about mental health among African American older adults suffering from depression. Journal of Aging Studies, 2010. 24(4): p. 266-277.

7. Cooper, L.A., et al., The acceptability of treatment for depression among African-American, Hispanic, and white primary care patients. Medical Care, 2003. 41(4): p. 479.

8. Gallo, J.J., L. Cooper-Patrick, and S. Lesikar, Depressive symptoms of whites and African Americans aged 60 years and older. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 1998. 53(5): p. P277.

9. Gum, A.M., et al., Depression treatment preferences in older primary care patients. The Gerontologist, 2006. 46(1): p. 14.

10. Unützer, J., et al., Depression treatment in a sample of 1,801 depressed older adults in primary care. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 2003. 51(4): p. 505-514.

11. Wang, P.S., P. Berglund, and R.C. Kessler, Recent care of common mental disorders in the United States. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 2000. 15(5): p. 284-292.

12. Young, A.S., et al., The quality of care for depressive and anxiety disorders in the United States. Archives of General Psychiatry, 2001. 58(1): p. 55.