Adjusting to a physical disability that occurs as a result of an injury, illness, or the aging process can be challenging on numerous levels. The disability itself is likely to pose significant challenges that require many changes in the individual’s life. There are many types of physical disabilities an adult might develop related to their mobility or senses like sight and hearing. A person who finds it difficult to move from room to room, for instance, might also lose their driving privileges. A person who develops a disability may no longer be able to perform their current job or even to perform any gainful employment at all.
These changes can take a toll on a person’s lifestyle, finances, family, and their mental health. The stress associated with a disability can impact a person’s mental health significantly. The individual may find it difficult to access medical care—not only for their physical issues but also for their psychological ones. Left unaddressed, mental health can further erode, leaving people to suffer from serious symptoms such as anxiety or depression.
Born with Disability vs. Developing One Later in Life?
It would be unfair to say that those who are born with a disability or who develop one early in life have it easier in terms of mental health than someone who develops a disability as an adult. Although children with physical disabilities often appear to adapt well to routines, treatments, and devices that may support them, they might struggle psychologically when encountering their peers who do not have disabilities. While many children and teens with disabilities have the support of their families and access to child-friendly medical care, not all do. Disabled kids without a strong support system may experience mental health symptoms.
Both children and adults who have physical disabilities are at increased risk for developing a mental health condition like depression or anxiety. The experience of being or becoming physically disabled can cause feelings of profound sadness, anger, or even a sense of injustice. Compounded with their injury are the adult responsibilities that most people face–shopping for groceries, mowing their lawn, working, or supporting themselves and their families.
Some disabilities may even prevent individuals from dressing themselves or performing other tasks related to self-care. Not being able to perform these basic tasks and having to rely on someone else for help can leave the individual feeling vulnerable, scared, or angry. Negative emotions like these can lead to clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder.
How Mental/Physical Isolation Can Contribute to Depression
Individuals who are physically or mentally disabled frequently experience more isolation. That social isolation can negatively impact a person’s mental health. A person with a physical disability may no longer be able to drive or transport themselves to friends and family members’ homes. They may not be able to traverse stores or easily attend events in the community without assistance. The result is that the individual leaves the confines of their home less often.
The increased isolation, especially for adults who have been used to a vibrant social life, can cause symptoms of mental illness. The individual may feel distress when alone. Conversely, they may also develop feelings of panic when they do have to venture outside of their homes. They may feel fearful about navigating unfamiliar settings because of their disability. This fear is likely to prevent them from leaving their home unless they absolutely have to, which can further impact their feelings of anxiety.
Being alone frequently can also create an environment where negative thoughts fester. When one is alone with their thoughts, especially unhealthy thoughts and negative emotions, the discomfort can grow. Many people living with a disability may not have access to outlets that could alleviate their symptoms. For instance, support groups or family living close by could be helpful, but not all disabled adults have a support structure.
Does Treatment Vary for Physically Disabled Adults?
Physical and mental healthcare can vary, depending on where you live. For instance, people in rural communities have less access to specialty medical care or related resources as those living in large cities. People in underserved urban areas may also lack supportive resources. The cost of physical and mental healthcare can also prevent individuals from getting the medical care they need.
Without an infrastructure that ensures transportation to and from care centers and other services designed to support the physical and mental healthcare needs of disabled adults, care will continue to vary. The individual themselves may also prove an impediment to their own care. Their mental health symptoms may cause them to put off treatment or even abandon it. Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety can be debilitating and self-sabotaging. When coupled with a physical impediment, the individual may feel unable to cope; in such cases, an intervention from family or the community may be needed.
Addressing Mental Health During Treatment for a Physical Disability
Mental health is dynamic. That’s why it’s important to address it on an ongoing basis. As the individual undergoes treatment for their physical disability or other physical needs, they should also undergo mental health assessments. Most physicians are aware–or should be–that patients with physical disabilities are at increased risk for developing anxiety or depression, so appointments should include discussion of mental health symptoms.
A person who experiences mental health symptoms like anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, or insomnia requires treatment if these symptoms do not dissipate after two weeks. Remember that such symptoms can worsen without treatment. While some primary care physicians may prescribe medications like antidepressants, they are likely to recommend ongoing treatment with a mental health professional that includes medication and counseling.
A mental health professional will be able to advise patients about resources in the area that they can rely on. In addition to routine therapy (which may now be offered online), patients may be advised to attend support groups that include others who are suffering from similar disabilities or mental health conditions. Finding the best kinds of support for one’s physical and mental health needs can help patients build a strong recovery foundation. While their physical disability may not improve, their ability to cope with and manage it certainly may–and support can help.
Ongoing mental health support is important because new stressors can occur at any time. For instance, a change in one’s support structure can cause the individual to experience new or renewed mental health symptoms. A favorite caregiver may move or be reassigned or a family member may become sick, causing symptoms like anxiety to re-occur. That’s why it’s crucial for medical providers to continually address the mental health care needs of their patients.
If you or a loved one is newly disabled or is struggling with a mental health care issue related to a disability, there is help. With the right care, you can find relief from these symptoms and help to manage them going forward.