Excelling against the Odds: Ageism & Perspectives on Treatment Efficacy among Mental Health Care Workers

As the population of older adults continues to grow, the need for mental health care workers servicing older adults increases. However, the prevalence of mental health care workers necessary to address this need has not been growing at the same rate. One theory is that ageism, or age-based discrimination, has thwarted mental health care workers from pursuing opportunities to work with older adults. One study has attempted to test this theory by examining the health biases of clinical mental healthcare trainees preparing to work with this growing population. 

In the study, 488 graduate-level mental health trainees were asked to read one of two randomly assigned vignettes outlining a clinical case with a 75-year-old, White female client. One vignette described the client as healthy while the other suggested that the client was unhealthy, detailing a history of congenital heart disease that warranted several hospitalizations. The mental health trainees were then asked questions regarding the potential efficacy of providing therapy to the client given the client’s health. Trainees were also asked questions about ageist attitudes and aging anxiety.  

In a study that earned a Silver 2022 Innovative Research on Aging Award, researchers found that trainees who were asked to read the vignette depicting the client as unhealthy rated clinical work more negatively than those who were asked to read the vignette depicting her as healthy. While beliefs about treatment efficacy did not significantly differ depending on the client’s health among those with low levels of ageist attitudes, trainees with more negative ageist attitudes expressed that treating an unhealthy client would be significantly less effective than treating the healthy client.  

Researchers ultimately concluded that trainees’ biases towards the health of older adults may be catalyzed by aging anxiety and ageist attitudes. They suggest that programs need to be created as interventions to mitigate psychological biases of future mental health professionals against older adults.  

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Caskie, G. I., Patterson, S. L., & Voelkner, A. R. (2022). Health bias in clinical work with older adult clients: The relation with ageism and aging anxiety. Clinical Gerontologist, 45(2), 351-365. 

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