December 3 is International Day of People with Disability (IDPwD), an international day of observance organised by the United Nations aimed at increasing public awareness, understanding and acceptance of people with disability.
At Access Psych, we want to do our part by raising awareness of the challenges that people with disability face when it comes to dealing with poor mental health, including highlighting some of the things you can do to boost your mental health if you have a disability.
Before we get to the steps you can take to look after your mental health if you have a disability, we’ll explore some of the statistics surrounding poor mental health in people with disability, along with some of the factors that contribute to poor mental health.
Mental health in people with disability
People with disability continue to be disproportionately impacted by mental health conditions compared to those without disability, according to the comprehensive National Health Survey carried out by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
More than two in five people with severe or profound disability, and one in three people with other forms of disability, self-reported anxiety-related problems, compared to one in ten of people without any form of disability, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).
Meanwhile, 36 per cent of people with severe or profound disability self-reported that they had mood (affective) disorders, such as depression, compared with 32 per cent of people with other forms of disability and just under 9 per cent of those without.
The signs of poor mental health
The signs of poor mental health differ from person to person, but some of the most common affect your emotions, thoughts and behaviours.
Here are a few signs you should watch out for if you have a disability. Remember, you can have one or more signs at any one time.
Changes in your appetite
Changes in eating habits can be a common sign that something isn’t quite right. Take notice if you’re eating more or less food than you usually do, and if these changes persist longer than usual.
Even small but persistent changes to your appetite could lead to eating disorder, which can pose a significant threat to your mental and physical health.
If you’re finding it difficult to concentrate, or if you’re having trouble remembering things, it may be a sign of poor mental health. For example, you might be at work and unable to remember things that happened in a meeting a short time ago. You might also have difficulty thinking clearly.
Keep an eye on your concentration levels, and if you find yourself persistently struggling to focus at home or at work, consider seeking professional help.
Withdrawing from people
Withdrawing from your family and friends and avoiding the things you used to enjoy is a common sign that something isn’t quite right.
Importantly, isolating yourself, losing interest and having a fear of being judged negatively are all signs of social anxiety, so don’t ignore these feelings.
Changes to your mood
Poor mental health can cause shifts in your mood. For example, you might fluctuate between feeling on top of the world and extremely sad or angry.
Keep an eye out if your mood seems out of character, and take notice if someone raises a concern about how you’ve been acting recently.
We all feel worried from time to time, but worrying about something more than usual may be a sign that your mental health is under threat.
Persistent worrying about a situation could be an early indicator that you have anxiety. Don’t brush it off. Taking notice early can make sure things don’t spiral out of control.
Changes in sleeping
Changes to your sleeping pattern can be a tell-tale sign that something isn’t quite right. Take note if you find you’re struggling to get to sleep or stay asleep.
It’s important to address this issue as soon as possible. Poor sleep can leave you without energy and feeling irritable, make the underlying mental health concern worse.
Mental health and disability: how the two are linked
Nobody is immune to poor mental health, but people with disability often face additional challenges thrown at them by society which can make things even more difficult.
With the help of mental health organisation SANE, we’ll explore some of the main reasons you might find yourself struggling with poor mental health if you have a disability.
Your physical health and mental health are closely connected, and some conditions, such as diabetes, can increase the chances of mental health struggles. Medication can also play a part in this.
Meanwhile, physical disabilities, such as those that leave you with chronic pain, can leave you feeling frustrated, helpless and lacking the motivation to socialise.
If you have any kind of disability, keep an eye out for the signs of mental health conditions. For example, headaches, fatigue and digestive problems can be symptoms of depression, whilst an increased heartrate and upset stomach can be signs of anxiety.
Finding the right support can be difficult
Finding the right support takes energy, patience and time. Some people find their symptoms “invisible” or difficult to describe, which can make them feel they’re being brushed aside.
Meanwhile, some people fail to meet the criteria for certain supports which can be another setback on the road to positive mental health.
Discrimination and exclusion
Being the victim of discrimination or exclusion can leave you low on confidence and lacking the motivation to seek support or interact with people.
People with disability often take on some of society’s negative attitudes toward those living with disability, no matter how hard they try to ignore it.
You might have grown up disconnected from others with disability. This can lessen the feeling of relatability which can leave you feeling alone.
Meanwhile, the benefits of the disability community are misunderstood by many, which can leave people feeling dissuaded from joining.
Lack of money
Unfortunately, people living with disability – both physical and mental – may have to spend money on long-term healthcare that can be costly.
You might also find yourself facing discrimination when it comes to employment, another factor that can leave you with financial anxiety and other money worries.
Past experiences can act as triggers
Although there have been societal improvements in awareness, understanding and support for people living with disability, there is still the danger that past frustrations or experiences could trigger hurtful memories and impact your mental health.
For example, when a person in a wheelchair experiences accessibility challenges, when a person with hearing loss can’t read instructions or when a person with speech impediments can’t express themselves. These are all examples of frustrations or experiences that could contribute to poor mental health.
How to look after your mental health if you have a disability
Look to role models
A role model is someone who serves as an example and someone who others look up to, often as someone worthy of imitation.
People have role models at all stages of their lives, but role models can be particularly impressionable on children and younger people who are at impressionable stages in their lives.
There are plenty of role models with disability you can follow on social media, including sports stars like Australian tennis player Dylan Alcott or the most successful Paralympian to date, American swimmer Trischa Zorn, Many stars share their battles with mental health in the hope of inspiring others.
Connect with others
Connecting with people who are in a similar situation, or who have had similar life experiences, can give you a sense of belonging and hope.
Joining a disability support group can be a great way to socialise and put you in touch with people who can support you and give lived advice.
Look after your physical health
Looking after your physical health is one of the best ways to look after your mental health. Just 30 minutes exercise a day can go a long way to supporting positive mental health.
Regardless of your disability, there’s something out there for you. For example, blind cricket – a version of the game which has been adapted so that it can be played by blind and partially sighted players – is hugely popular and becoming more widely available.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis teams you could join. Joining your local swimming team is also a good idea if you have mobility issues or you want to try something with a lower impact.
Ask for support if you need it
You don’t have to suffer in silence. If you need support for your mental health, simply ask. There are plenty of organisations out there who can help.
If you’re struggling to ask for support from an organisation or mental health professional, start small. Ask a friend to help you reach out.
Don’t be scared to speak about your experiences or problems with others. It can seem daunting at first, but bottling things up is never the way to go.
Talk to someone you’re comfortable with and who you trust. Getting your problems out in the open can clear your head and even help you find a solution.
If you’re not getting the right mental health support, or if you think the support you’re receiving could be improved, don’t be afraid to speak up.
It might seem daunting, but if something isn’t making a positive contribution to your mental health, speak to your mental healthcare provider to find an alternative.
For urgent support
If there’s an immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, please call 000.
If you need someone to talk with now, call:
- Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 or chat online at beyondblue.org.au
- Lifeline: 13 11 14
- Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
Need to talk to someone?
With psychologists all over Australia, mental health support is only a call away if you want talk to one of the Access Psych team.
Alternatively, if you have any questions about Access Psych and what else we can do for you, visit our Frequently Asked Questions page.
The information provided in this document is general in nature and is intended to be used for information purposes only. While we have tried to ensure the accuracy of the information published, no guarantee can be given that the information is free from error or omission or that it is accurate, current or complete.
The information published is not, and should not be relied on as, health or treatment advice. The diagnosis and treatment of any mental illness requires the attention of a physician or other properly qualified mental health professional. If you are seeking diagnosis or treatment of any other mental illness, you should consult a physician or mental health professional. You should not delay in seeking, or disregard, professional health advice because of something you have read in this document.