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How Ableism Affects the Mental Health of Disabled People

The conversation surrounding mental health is awash in buzzy phrases like “self-care” and “burnout,” discussions about anxiety and depression and personal stories about taking psychiatric medication.  But while the past decade has seen people from all walks of life open up about their struggles with mental health, the effects of ableism on disabled people’s mental health has received comparatively little attention.

We need to talk about how ableism affects the mental health of those in the disability community.

Ableism is the systemic oppression of people with disabilities and includes a lack of access to public buildings, the media’s often-negative depictions of disabled bodies, disregarding invisible physical or mental symptoms and the rampant use of “inspiration porn” and pity towards people with disabilities. Although these sometimes occur separately, the effects of a lifetime of feeling displaced or unwelcome in society often build up over time and significantly affect disabled people’s mental health.

Studies have shown that 17.4 percent of people with disabilities experience “frequent mental distress” — a higher percentage than in the able-bodied, neurotypical population.  Additionally, depression symptoms are two to 10 times more common in people with disabilities, and higher levels of anxiety have been reported in people with disabilities as well. While some may attribute these mental illnesses to frustration with physical limitations, this high prevalence of anxiety and depression is more often related to how society views, treats and excludes people with disabilities rather than to disability symptoms themselves.

The link between ableism and mental illness is more than just a notion — and as a woman with a disability, I’ve seen it play out in my own life.  The ableism I faced as a child with mild cerebral palsy, from doctors constantly focusing on my body’s weaknesses to facing non-consensual surgeries that were meant to “fix” my body to the pressure I faced to hide my disability by any means possible significantly affected my mindset later in life.  By the time I was a teenager, I was struggling with anxiety from constantly concealing my cerebral palsy, and in college, the pressure to “surpass” my disability contributed to depression, suicidality, and an eating disorder.  I’ve been privileged to have access to mental health and eating disorder treatment programs — finances often prevent people with disabilities from accessing necessary mental health treatment — but I’ve encountered plenty of clinicians who don’t understand my experiences as a woman with a disability or are unintentionally ableist themselves.

Fortunately, though, our society can help remediate the ableism that often leads to mental health struggles in people with disabilities. Clinicians can be mindful of how they frame disabled bodies and disability itself and actively listen to the members of the disability community they treat. Local governments can set aside funds for building reconstruction and prioritize accessible design. People without disabilities can learn the history of the disability community and resolve to acknowledge and validate the strengths and challenges of disabled people from all backgrounds.

Discussing mental health is important, but actively understanding the intersection of ableism and mental health is a necessary step in bringing the disability community into the conversation.  We need to talk about how ableism affects disabled people’s mental health so that we can work towards a happier, more accessible world for people with disabilities.

Getty image by Ponomariova Maria.

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