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On the outside looking in: A perspective on mental health and disability

Illustration of people living with disabilities for International Day of Persons Living with Disabilities
Pikisuperstar | Freepik

Opinion by Sukhpreet Chana

Mental health issues occur 5-times more often among people who live with disability compared with those who don't. Sukhpreet Chana gives her insight into what life is like living with a disability, and the psychological toll it can take.

People with disabilities regularly encounter everyday hindrances that can contribute to mental health issues. Often, it is a case of feeling treated in a way that is different to how people without a disability are treated; being considered as an ‘other’ rather than a human being.

International Day of Persons with Disabilities is designed to bring attention to these problems and encourage a more inclusive, diverse, and equal society. The day aims to empower the estimated 1 billion people living with disabilities to live their lives to the fullest, while encouraging society to progress toward an unbiased perception that everyone is equal in society.

In honour of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I want to share my own perspective as a person living with a disability and explore some of the key issues that remain unaddressed in the fight for a fairer, more inclusive society.

A personal perspective

I am visually impaired. I am also someone who has been lucky enough to have consistent contact with support services. Their help means that my mental health is not something that particularly affects my everyday life. In fact, I feel like my needs are very much fulfilled.

But my position is certainly a privileged one. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults with disabilities report experiencing frequent mental distress almost 5 times as often as adults without disabilities.

That may seem quite a shocking statistic if you don’t live with a disability, but as someone who has done for most of their life, it is very easy to comprehend. That’s because, despite my own mental health not being a major issue for me, there are simple truths about the society we live in that have, and continue to, affect me.

More than once in my life, I have felt like someone on the outside looking in. An observer of ‘normal’ life who is an exceptional fragment of the population, rather than a part of a greater societal whole.

I put this feeling down to the fact that society is mostly built for the needs of people not living with a disability. Take work as an example — something that takes up most of our waking lives. In my own experience, my visual impairment has hindered past employment, whether through my own incapability to perform the job to the expected standard, or through a lack of accessibility processes implemented by the company itself.


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Acknowledging invisible disability

Accessibility issues for persons living with disability stretch further than just the physical realm though. What perhaps isn’t as appreciated as it should be is when disability and mental health issues interconnect.

Perhaps one of the most well-known facts about the relationship between disability and mental health is that depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. Yet societal empathy toward this fact is seemingly still low. From my perspective, this may be due to our own human nature to first resort to what we can see to confirm what we are told. If someone says that they are disabled yet have no visible sign that can be attributed to disability, it can be difficult for some people to fully believe it.

This is a particularly prominent issue for people living with depression or anxiety – two of the leading causes of disability worldwide. Due to a lack of understanding around the degree to which either mental health issue can hinder everyday living, there is often a sense that neither should be considered a ‘true’ disability.

Of course, this view is incorrect. Mental health and behavioural problems as a whole – which includes depression, anxiety, and drug use – are responsible for over 40 million years of disability in 20 to 29-year-olds.

Progress is being made

Even though the mental health impact of disability, and the interconnectedness between disability and mental health, remains relatively untouched by societal discourse, progress has still been made. Younger generations are talking about mental health more generally, and that includes discussing the psychological effects of disability and how mental health issues can be classed as disabilities in their own right. It feels like part of a generational shift in our collective sensitivity to the needs of persons living with disabilities, leading to a society that is now more open-minded and willing to talk about the mental challenges we face.

It will undoubtedly be a long journey until the mental health needs of people living with disabilities are fully appreciated. But as someone who has lived with a disability for a significant portion of their life, I am hopeful that we are moving in the right direction.


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