February 28, 2019
A new study released at the beginning of January this year found that adults with cerebral palsy are at a higher risk for developing mental illnesses. Focusing primarily on depression and anxiety, the study revealed adults with CP ( no intellectual disabilities) had almost a 2- to 3-fold increase in the likelihood of being diagnosed with these two conditions than adults without CP. For the general public, these results may seem shocking, but for individuals with physical disabilities and caregivers, the data comes as no surprise.
Individuals with physical disabilities sustained from birth injuries, illnesses, or accidents later in life, are often so focused on their physical needs it can be easy to neglect their mental health. Adults with cerebral palsy, for example, have such specialized and unique medical needs to address their physical impairments they could see anywhere between 14 specialists a year, in addition to their primary care visits or emergency needs: clinical nurse specialists, endocrinologists, neurologists, occupational therapists, orthopedic surgeons, speech and language pathologists, urologists, physical therapists, pain management specialists, and more.
Balancing medications, doctor’s appointments, adaptive equipment, and constantly worrying about the logistics of getting anywhere takes a physical and emotional toll on a person that can over time lead to mental illness. In addition to being more prone to mental illness, people with physical disabilities are also less likely to seek treatment due to a serious and dangerous stigma surrounding mental health.
People with physical disabilities, both congenital (from birth) and acquired (from accidents and injuries), face numerous challenges in their everyday life that can bare negatively on their mental health. Tasks that some people do on autopilot are major stressors for someone who is unable to walk, stand, climb, reach, or perform other typical physical movements on their own. These seven barriers, highlighted by the Center for Disease and Control (CDC) are the most common challenges people with physical disabilities face can lead to the onset of mental illnesses:
Running into these barriers on a daily and weekly basis can weigh heavily on individuals who are already battling internal struggles to be accepted, fulfilled, and healthy. Over time, these seven barriers can lead to secondary consequences that can also increase the onset and severity of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety:
All of the above are considered risk factors for depression and anxiety, even if only one of them is present. The fact that people with physical disabilities endure multiple risk factors, if not all of them at the same time, is extremely concerning.
If and when an individual with physical disabilities does recognize they are experiencing trouble with depression or anxiety, it is not very likely they are going to seek help voluntarily.
For centuries there has been a stigma surrounding the mental health industry, labeling those unfairly who do seek treatment as ‘weak’, ‘fragile’, ‘sensitive’, or ‘crazy’. Individuals with physical disabilities already have deep-rooted fears of being rejected and identified only for their disabilities. Seeking treatment for their mental health as well as their physical health can be difficult to accept, especially when the assistance could come with another label.
Untreated cases of mental illness such as depression and anxiety can spiral out of control, leading to serious risks including:
It is never too late for anyone to improve their mental health. There are several methods individuals with physical disabilities can take to starting focusing on their mental health, some including:
Explore transportation: More transportation companies are offering their services to individuals with disabilities in an effort to become more inclusive. Explore the options in your area to help give you another reason to get out in the community.