Living with a disability, physical or intellectual, affects so many parts of a person’s overall wellbeing. Mental health is no exception.

In Australia, almost one in five people have a disability of some kind.

The Royal Children’s Hospital defines an intellectual disability as "a significant impairment of cognitive and adaptive functions, with age of onset before 18 years." Around three per cent of the Australian population live with an intellectual disability.

A physical disability refers to a condition that limits bodily function in some way. It can be the result of a medical issue you were born with, or an accident/illness later in life. Here are some statistics highlighting how common  physical disability is in Australia:

  • Every week, five people sustain a spinal cord injury
  • Every week 10–15 people sustain a severe brain injury
  • Every 13 hours, a child is born with cerebral palsy
  • One in six people are affected by hearing loss
  • Approximately 575,000 people are blind or vision impaired

So how can living with a disability contribute to anxiety or depression?

Social isolation

While loneliness affects people from all walks of life, it can be particularly difficult for people living with a disability. In a recent UK survey of people with a disability, a quarter of the respondents reported feeling lonely every day. Consider, for example, how someone in a wheelchair approaches a social occasion. You have to consider how to get to and from the venue, the accessibility of the venue, whether you will require assistance…the list goes on. You may also want to avoid feeling you’re a burden to others and decide not to go out altogether.

Lack of employment opportunities

The unemployment rate for people in Australia living with a disability is about 10 per cent; nearly double the rate of people living without a disability. Disability can make it extremely difficult for people to find a job, leaving a significant void in their life. Work plays a big role in how we perceive ourselves. The longer someone is unemployed, the more they may feel hopeless and down on themselves. Unsurprisingly, it has been found to increase a person’s likelihood of developing anxiety or depression.

Financial difficulty

Unemployment puts a lot of financial stress on someone. For someone with a disability, this can often be made even harder by the high costs of managing their disability – equipment, medication and regular medical appointments are certainly not cheap. Many people may also require a carer to assist with daily life, which can be quite costly. Sixty per cent of people in Australia with a disability living in households need assistance with at least one activity in daily life. There are disability support schemes that can help ease some of this financial pressure.

Discrimination

When someone feels discriminated against because of their disability, this can have a large effect on their mental health. Research shows that this discrimination can often start young – “Disability exerts a detrimental effect on adolescent mental health, and a large proportion of this appears to operate through bullying.” It can be name-calling, teasing, physical bullying or excluding the person from friendship groups, sporting teams or events.

Coming to grips with an acquired disability

When a disability happens due to an accident or illness later in life, it can be incredibly difficult to get used to a new way of living. Researchers have found eight common phases people may go through when coming to grips with a physical disability:

  • Shock
  • Anxiousness
  • Denial
  • Depression
  • Internalised anger
  • Externalised anger
  • Acknowledgement
  • Adjustment

It’s important that all people feel supported when it comes to mental health. Disability Services Australia supports people to develop the skills and capabilities they need to participate in society and contribute to the economy.

The Beyond Blue Support Service is accessible via phone (24/7 on 1300 22 4636), online chat (3pm–12am, 7 days a week), as well as email. It's also worth checking out the Beyond Blue forums where you can find many topics and personal stories that can relate to ones affecting you or your loved ones.

Related reading: Coping with a serious health event

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