People with disabilities face a variety of structural and ideological challenges that have little to do with their actual limitations. These societal stigmas are often at the root of poor mental health and mental illness among individuals with disabilities, rather than their disability itself. However, this can be lessened by focusing on ways to promote good mental health and people with disabilities.
In this blog, we’ll take a closer look at the psychological effects of a disability, barriers to effective mental healthcare, and ways to overcome these obstacles. We’ll also provide a comprehensive list of resources if you’re living with a disability and experiencing poor mental health or mental illness.
Table of Contents:
What Is Mental Health?
The mental health spectrum ranges from good mental health to poor mental health and/or serious mental illness. Many people experience small fluctuations on the milder end of the spectrum due to the normal challenges of daily life. However, others fluctuate or stabilize on the end of poor mental health or mental illness.
It’s important to understand that poor mental health and mental illness aren’t the same thing. Someone who has been diagnosed with mental illness can experience periods of overall mental well-being. And someone with poor mental health may not be diagnosed with a formal mental illness. Everyone should be treated with respect on an individual basis, rather than being stereotyped and dismissed.
Signs & Symptoms of Poor Mental Health or Mental Illness
Some mental health struggles can significantly impact your daily life, while others may be mild or undiagnosed entirely. Poor mental health or mental illness can often be treated with a combination of medication and therapy. It can also be temporary due to factors like losing your job, loss of a loved one, or social anxiety.
Here are a few signs and symptoms to look for if you’re struggling with poor mental health:
- Lack of enjoyment of activities that used to give you fulfillment
- Irritability, anger, frustration, and worry
- Consistent bad mood
- Change in sleep patterns (not getting enough sleep or sleeping too much)
- Change in appetite (not eating enough or overeating)
- Ongoing avoidance of certain people, places, and things
- Thoughts of suicide or death
- Reduced concentration and/or memory
- Fatigue and decreased energy
The Relationship Between Physical and Intellectual Disabilities and Mental Health Issues
The negative impact of poor mental health and mental illness are particularly severe among people with disabilities. In fact, adults with disabilities report experiencing frequent mental distress (14 or more mentally unhealthy days in the past 30 days) almost five times as often as adults without disabilities. In 2018 specifically, around 17.4 million adults with disabilities experienced frequent mental distress, which was 4.6 times more often than those without disabilities.
Frequent mental distress has many damaging repercussions, including chronic disease, poor health behaviors, demoralizing limitations, and mental health disorders. People with disabilities face many challenges on a daily basis, like physical barriers, negative stereotyping, and reduced access to their communities. As a result, they’re far more susceptible to poor mental health and mental illness.
Adults with disabilities frequently lack access to healthcare due to high costs, and they’re also more likely to live below the federal poverty line than those without disabilities. Additionally, people with disabilities experience abuse and neglect more often than the general population, leaving them at a higher risk for developing mental disorders that further limit their participation in everyday life.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health and People with Disabilities
The negative impacts of COVID-19 have been felt around the world, regardless of disability status. However, reduced healthcare services, disrupted routines, and social isolation have been particularly detrimental to the mental health aspects of developmental disabilities and physical limitations. Many individuals with disabilities are also more likely to develop serious illnesses as a result of COVID-19, only adding to the challenges they face on a daily basis.
Barriers to Mental Healthcare for People with Disabilities
People with disabilities face a wide variety of obstacles when it comes to obtaining good mental healthcare. We’ll take a look at each of these challenges in more detail below.
Social Stigmas & Ableism
Individuals with disabilities are often reduced to their disability, rather than being treated as valuable and contributing members of society. Known as ableism, these damaging stigmas devalue those with disabilities by dismissing them as being “less than” people without disabilities.
In many cases, doctors view poor mental health or mental illness as a direct result of having a disability, instead of an independent challenge. Mental health conditions are lumped together with other disability symptoms, causing poor mental health or mental illness to be overlooked entirely. Instead, physicians focus on providing physical comfort and pain relief for the body, which (while important) can be very damaging to overall health.
Some mental health providers feel that people with disabilities must be “fixed” in order to fully participate in their communities, but this isn’t the case. As a result, having a disability is perceived as a defect, rather than a small aspect of a person that simply makes them different.
Disabilities that affect communication (hearing, speaking, or understanding) can make it even harder to find qualified mental health professionals. It may also be more difficult for providers to diagnose and reduce mental health symptoms since therapists rely heavily on verbal communication.
Poverty & Unemployment
Many individuals with disabilities have difficulty securing full-time jobs and often face overt employment discrimination. And those who do work are often stuck with temporary work or part-time jobs, which don’t usually include healthcare benefits.
At the same time, government disability benefits aren’t enough to cover the expenses of living independently or in an assisted living facility. Additionally, living below the poverty line can make it more difficult to obtain reliable transportation, especially if you have a mobility-related disability.
Mental health services for developmental disabilities and physical limitations (including medication expenses) can be high, and they aren’t always covered by government benefits. Many people end up paying for medical expenses out of pocket, and they typically prioritize their physical health over their mental well-being. Prohibitive costs may also cause housing insecurity and homelessness, both of which can contribute to poor mental health or mental illness.
Disconnected Healthcare Networks
Healthcare networks are often stretched extremely thin in rural or under-served areas, negatively impacting communication and coordination between providers. These regions may also have a higher doctor-to-patient ratio, which can lead to infrequent, low-quality care when it comes to mental health and disability. Physicians may also be disconnected due to insurance coverage issues, technology incompatibility, and travel difficulties.
How to Improve Mental Health and People with Disabilities
While there are definitely impediments to good mental health for people with disabilities, there are also plenty of ways to keep yourself feeling your best. We’ll take an in-depth look at each of these methods below to get you on the right track.
Seek Counseling & Therapy
Getting into mental health treatment, counseling, or therapy is crucial for people with disabilities who are struggling with mental health issues. This is especially true if you’re struggling with poor mental health or mental illness as a result of a newly-acquired disability. Speaking with a trusted professional is a great way to resolve your frustration and anger, and can also boost your confidence and self-esteem during this trying time.
In addition to mental health treatment, there are other types of therapy that can positively impact your overall well-being. These include occupational, speech, and physical therapy:
- Occupational therapy includes self-care, developing employment skills, completing domestic tasks, and enjoying leisure activities.
- Speech therapy helps improve communication skills, speech articulation, receptive and expressive language skills, and vocabulary.
- Physical therapy seeks to enhance your quality of life by promoting mobility, providing adaptive solutions for mobility challenges, and increasing sensory assimilation.
Take Care of Your Mind & Body
Along with pursuing mental health treatment, it’s important to pay attention to your emotional health. Consider taking breaks from watching and reading about the news, especially on social media. This can help you think more clearly, along with stabilizing your mood and improving your overall health.
Taking care of your body is also very important and can have a significant impact on your mental health. Focus on eating healthy meals, exercising (whatever that may look like for you), practicing meditation and mindfulness, getting plenty of sleep, and limiting your alcohol consumption.
Connect with Others
Confiding in people you trust (family, friends, therapists, etc.) about your mental health concerns and how you’re feeling is extremely important. While this has been more difficult during times of social distancing, you can still connect with your support system virtually.
If you’re comfortable being around other people in person, consider volunteering your time with community- or faith-based organizations. You can also sign up for a class or pursue a new hobby, which keeps you busy and can help you avoid negative, self-deprecating thoughts.
Advocate for Yourself
One of the most effective ways to improve your mental health is by always serving as your greatest advocate. Take the time to find the right mental healthcare provider for your needs by asking key questions and learning about all of your options. These queries include (but are not limited to) the following:
- What do you think might be causing my mental health symptoms?
- Could my physical limitations be impacting my mental health?
- Can you refer me to therapists who have experience with psychological treatment for intellectual disabilities and physical limitations?
- What assessments will you conduct to better understand the problem?
- Will my mental health treatment plan impact my physical health in any way?
- Do you have any partnerships with behavioral health specialists to coordinate care?
- Can you provide me with resources like access to transportation, financial assistance, and cost-effective care?
Start by finding a primary care physician who regularly works with people with disabilities. These providers often have established relationships with mental health professionals with the specialized knowledge and tools necessary to provide you with the best care. Finally, make sure that all of your doctors are in sync to create the most effective treatment plan for your overall physical, mental, and emotional health.
Check Out These Resources for Mental Health and People with Disabilities
There are a wide variety of resources available to people with disabilities who are struggling with mental health issues. You’ll find a handful of these resources below, along with a brief description of their services and links to their websites.
- The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) provides funding for two National Centers on Disability that focus on improving the physical and mental quality of life for people living with disabilities.
- The Special Olympics provides year-round training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for people with intellectual disabilities. These programs help participants develop their physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy, and share gifts, skills, and friendship with their peers, families, and the broader community.
- The Special Olympics’ Inclusive Health programming focuses on improving the physical, social, and emotional well-being of people with intellectual disabilities by increasing inclusion in health care, wellness, and health systems.
- The Special Olympics’ Strong Mindfulness program offers free one-hour mindfulness sessions for people with intellectual disabilities and their families.
- The National Center on Health, Physical Activity, and Disability (NCHPAD) helps people with disabilities and other chronic health conditions achieve health benefits through increased participation in physical and social activities. This program supports local, state, and national organizations in adopting guidelines, recommendations, and adaptations that promote the inclusion of children and adults with mobility limitations in public health practices.
- NCHPAD’s M.E.N.T.O.R. (Mindfulness, Exercise, & Nutrition to Optimize Recovery) program takes a holistic approach to restoring, improving, and protecting health by dividing health into three domains: physical, mental, and emotional and supporting each accordingly.
- The American Association for People with Disabilities can help you find accessible treatment and support if you’re struggling with poor mental health or mental illness.