More elderly people in Maltese long-term care facilities suffer from mild depression and contemplate suicide than people in similar institutions abroad, according to new data.

More than half of the residents in one large facility thought of attempting suicide, while nearly 60 per cent suffered from depression, research by medical doctor Gerd Xuereb shows.

Some 11 per cent of the latter suffered from moderately severe to severe depression.

Depression was more common in women: 69 per cent of the interviewed female residents were depressed compared to 42 per cent of men.

“Depression is a treatable mental health disorder and is common among the elderly living in long-term care institutions,” said Dr Xuereb, a foundation doctor who works in geriatrics and previously in psychiatry.

“When dealing with depression and suicidality, prevention is key, so improved effort and education are needed to recognise depression and to detect increased suicidal risk.”

Depression, he told The Sunday Times of Malta, was one of the main risk factors for suicide, so there should be efforts to raise public awareness that it was common among the elderly and could be treated.

Professionals working with the elderly should be trained to detect, intervene and manage depression and suicide risk, he added.

Depression is one of the most common and treatable mental health disorders among the elderly, especially in those residing in long-term care institutions

Dr Xuereb will be one of the speakers at this month’s Malta Association of Psychiatry’s annual conference, this year focusing on preventing suicide and self-harm behaviours.

Mild depression is the most common type of depression at these care homes. The research shows that 29 per cent of men and 33 per cent of women suffer from mild depression while six per cent of men and seven per cent of women suffer from moderate to severe depression.

Asked whether these figures were considered high, Dr Xuereb said from the findings it was evident that depression and suicidal ideation were common among the elderly living in long-term care institutions in Malta.

“The prevalence of mild depression in Maltese institutions is higher than that in similar institutions abroad,” he said, while in the case of moderately severe to severe depression the rates are similar.”

Dr Xuereb’s research focused on deliberate self-harm and suicidal ideation among the elderly in a local long-term care facility. Suicidal ideation is when a person is thinking about or contemplating suicide.

A total of 52 per cent of respondents (39 per cent of men and 58 per cent of women) reported suicidal ideation. Studies abroad have demonstrated frequency rates ranging from 11 per cent to 43 per cent in similar institutions.

The most common protective factors include religion and relatives, Dr Xuereb pointed out.

Contrary to popular belief, he said, depression was not a normal part of aging but “one of the most common and treatable mental health disorders among the elderly, especially in those residing in long-term care institutions”.

The elderly in long-term care institutions were normally older than those living in the community. They had greater physical and cognitive difficulties and might find it hard to adapt to their loss of independence and their new routine.

These circumstances all increased the risk of depression and suicidality.

The MAP conference will be held on June 13 and 14. Its ultimate aim is to empower professionals from all walks of life to “promote a life worth living”. Log on to www.map.org.mt for more information.

What can be done?

■ Routine and standard screening programmes to identify depression and suicidal risk;

■ Good treatment of other medical problems such as pain that may lead to an improved quality of life;

■ Implementation of practice guidelines for the detection and management of depression and suicidality in long-term care homes.

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