Baby boomers face mental health care shortage

    7:32 AM, Nov 23, 2012   |    comments
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    UNDATED (CNN) -- Alcohol abuse, mental issues and drugs among baby boomers are some of the biggest drains on health resources in the United Kingdom. Here at home, our boomers are facing a shortage of quality mental health care, especially when dealing with the after-effects drug use from decades ago.

    A Jefferson Airplane song lyric says, "One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small..." The lyrics captured the experience of millions of baby boomers like Vaughn Harris. He says, "Yeah, you had Timothy Leary talking with the thing, you had Woodstock, you had the Hippie generation. I came up doin all that."

    Harris, 66, started experimenting with marijuana and LSD in the 1960s. He says, "Even with girls, I was a little shy. And when I started using different substances, it gave me, you know, that little false courage."

    He graduated to heroin and seven stints in prison mostly for stealing to support his habit. He says, "I liked the lifestyle. You get addicted to the lifestyle."

    Twelve years ago, a 12-step program helped Harris leave the life for a steady job at a glass company. Then came a series of personal crises, the death of his wife, recession-related cutbacks at work that reduced his income, and health problems that inflated his medical bills. Harris says, "Things started happening and I finally went to a specialist and he said 'you know what, some of the things that you're suffering from is stress."

    Harris stayed clean, but was diagnosed with depression. His case is an extreme example of what the future may hold for millions of baby boomers. Addiction medicine specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky says, "I've been seeing this for quite some time, older people with a problem of addiction. It is not just prescription drugs. It's alcohol, it's illicit drugs and they are extremely difficult to treat. The brain is less plastic as we age, it's harder to make change."

    Compounding the difficulty, the United States is expected to face a severe shortage of mental health professionals to treat what Dr. Dan Blazer of Duke University falls a hidden crisis. He says, "We are seeing a cohort, that is a group of persons aging out, these are the Baby Boomers, that have used drugs, all sorts of drugs, a lot more than the previous cohorts have. And that is one reason the substance abuse problem is great. Somewhere between five and eight million people today are suffering from mental health or substance abuse problems. That number is going to increase significantly as the Baby Boomers age."

    Grief when friends and loved ones die, declining physical health and reactions to medication can all contribute to the need for mental health care.

    The Institute of Medicine recommends a redesign of Medicare to guarantee coverage for mental health conditions and substance abuse.

    Harris says his depression is under control, thanks to treatment. But he worries about others of his generation. He says, "What is the alternative? If they don't have access to it then what happens? They doing what they're doing. They either end up dead or they end up doing something, and then you know ... so it's extremely important."

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