When we think of disabilities, we often picture conditions that are easy to spot: a vision impairment or a missing limb, for instance. But many disabilities aren’t immediately apparent to others. These are called invisible disabilities, and they can include chronic pain, chronic fatigue, cognitive impairments, brain injuries, learning differences, autism, depression and anxiety — and this invisible disabilities list is far from exhaustive.
Because these disabilities aren’t easily visible, people often find it difficult to empathize with them and fail to understand the struggles of those who have them. In the sections below, we’ll explore how invisible disabilities impact mental illness and why it’s so important to understand and acknowledge them. We’ll also discuss the challenges people with invisible disabilities face and how we can better support them.
Unseen Struggles: Defining Invisible Disabilities and Their Diversity
What is an invisible disability? It’s one of a diverse group of conditions that aren’t immediately apparent to others. Many of them, though not all, are neurological in nature. However, all invisible illnesses can make it difficult for a person to carry out activities of daily living.
Hidden disabilities encompass a wide range of conditions, including chronic pain, sleep disorders, ADHD, anxiety and depression. Types of invisible disabilities can vary from mental health conditions to chronic illnesses.
One reason invisible disabilities are hard for the average person to recognize is that they often don’t present visible signs, making it difficult for others to understand the challenges faced by those affected. For example, chronic pain is an invisible disability that can be challenging to diagnose and treat. And because people can’t see or feel someone else’s pain, sufferers may be accused of faking or exaggerating it.
Similarly, ADHD is a hidden disability that can lead to reduced self-confidence, higher anxiety and social isolation. But like chronic pain, it isn’t always readily apparent to others. Because invisible illnesses are so diverse in nature and difficult to understand, it can be hard for people who haven’t experienced them personally to empathize with those affected.
The Interplay Between Physical and Mental Health
The interplay between physical and mental health is complex but essential for understanding a person’s well-being or lack thereof. Physical conditions can lead to or worsen mental health problems due to the toll that living in constant pain or discomfort takes on the mind. For instance, multiple studies have shown that individuals with chronic physical conditions are at a higher risk of developing poor mental health.
Conversely, mental health issues can increase your susceptibility to a number of physical health conditions. This is because mental health challenges can decrease energy levels, disrupt sleep, impair social and cognitive function and make it more difficult to adopt healthy behaviors and lifestyle choices.
When a person’s physical disabilities are invisible, meaning others can’t readily see them, mental health challenges are compounded even further. People with invisible disabilities may not receive the empathy and support that a person with an obvious visible disability might get. This lack of understanding and social acceptance can lead to feelings of isolation and frustration and increased mental health challenges.
Understanding Stigma: Challenges Faced by Those With Invisible Disabilities
People with hidden disabilities face a variety of challenges that can make their lives difficult. These include:
- Lack of empathy: People with invisible disabilities often face skepticism and disbelief from others who can’t see their disability. They may be accused of faking their condition or milking the system.
- Difficulty locating proper resources and support networks: Since invisible disabilities aren’t always obvious, it can be difficult for sufferers to find the resources and support they need.
- Stigma and discrimination: People with invisible disabilities may be judged or misunderstood by others who don’t comprehend their condition. They may be accused of being lazy or unmotivated or treated as though they’re less capable than others.
- Struggling to create or maintain relationships: People with invisible illnesses often struggle with relationships. This is partly because of the stigma and discrimination they face, but also because keeping up a social life while dealing with a chronic illness can be difficult and tiring.
Hidden Impact: How Mental Health Is Impacted by Invisible Disabilities
The hidden impact of invisible disabilities on mental health is often overlooked, yet it can be significant. People with invisible disabilities may experience severe and even debilitating symptoms that aren’t apparent to others. This can lead to a lack of understanding and empathy — and in some cases, even stigma and judgment.
When friends and family lack awareness or understanding of someone’s health challenges, it can strain the relationship. The same thing can happen in the workplace or in other social circles, such as churches or civic groups. The fear of stigma and judgment may lead an individual to try to conceal their hidden disability, which can result in further isolation. This vicious cycle of shame and seclusion can lead to low self-esteem and a negative self-perception.
Some invisible disabilities wax and wane or fluctuate from day to day. This can lead to additional challenges. When someone has good days and bad days, others might fail to understand the extent of their struggles. The sufferer might hear things like, “I just saw you playing a tennis match yesterday. How bad can it be?”
Until these hidden impacts of invisible disabilities are brought into the open, sufferers will continue to face challenges getting the care and support they need.
Advocacy and Empathy: Fostering Awareness and Support for Those With Invisible Disabilities
Creating a supportive environment for those with invisible disabilities that promotes healing requires us to foster empathy and awareness. To do this, we must educate ourselves and others about the challenges faced by individuals with these conditions. We can rid ourselves of misconceptions and remove negative stigma by constantly seeking out information and being willing to engage in open dialogues.
We should strive to create safe spaces where people with invisible illnesses feel comfortable turning for support. We should always listen to their concerns and take them seriously, even when we can’t see with our own eyes how they’re suffering. In the workplace or in other organized groups, we should be willing to provide accommodations without making someone feel uncomfortable for requesting them.
By understanding and addressing the unique challenges faced by individuals with invisible disabilities, we can create a more empathetic, aware and supportive society for everyone.
If you or someone you love is dealing with an invisible disability, support is only a phone call away. Call FHE Health to speak to a mental health practitioner who can help you face your challenge head-on.