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Disabilities and mental health

Reviewed by therapist.com team

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What Is a Disability?

A disability is a physical or mental impairment that interferes with or makes it more difficult to engage in one or more major life activities.

Examples of common disabilities include (but are not limited to):

  • Vision impairment
  • Hearing loss
  • Deafness
  • Mobility impairment
  • Learning disorders
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Chronic illnesses, like HIV or diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Mental disorders, like depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or schizophrenia

The Relationship Between Disability and Mental Health

Having a disability and struggling with your mental health are two separate conditions that may intersect in different ways. Let’s take a look at some of the ways your mental health and disability relate to one another and affect your overall health.

1. Increased Risk of Comorbidity

It’s important to understand that having a disability does not mean you will automatically develop a mental health disorder. Many people with disabilities do not suffer from mental illnesses.

However, it’s also true that having a disability may increase your risk for certain mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression. This is sometimes due to the life circumstances that are associated with having a disability. For example, individuals with disabilities are more likely to struggle with unemployment and poverty, which increases the risk for mental distress.

Additionally, your mental health may suffer due to your disability because of discrimination and lack of equal access to care. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with disabilities already face barriers to accessing adequate healthcare in general. This includes healthcare that’s necessary to treat or manage their disability as well as healthcare for secondary conditions, including mental health disorders.

If you have both a disability and a mental health disorder, these conditions may interact or even overlap with each other.

For example, let’s say you were in a serious car accident that left you paralyzed from the waist down and suffering from symptoms of PTSD. In this case, one condition may exacerbate the other, as you may experience an increase in PTSD symptoms while completing rehabilitation exercises, like learning to use a wheelchair. Another example might be someone with depression who is diagnosed with a chronic autoimmune disease where again symptoms of both conditions may worsen each other. 

3. Completely Unrelated Conditions

You can have a disability and a mental health disorder that you experience as separate, unrelated conditions. For example, you can be born with a physical disability and also have ADHD, which are two conditions that aren’t correlated and don’t affect each other.

Is Mental Illness a Disability?

Your mental illness may or may not qualify as a legal disability.

According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), adults can qualify to receive Social Security disability benefits for certain mental disorders, but the criteria is very strict. You can have a professional diagnosis of a mental illness from your psychiatrist and still not qualify as having a legal disability.

For example, if you have anxiety, the tools a therapist will use to diagnose you with an anxiety disorder are very different from the criteria listed by the SSA that would qualify your anxiety as a legal disability. In general, you can have a mental health disorder without having a disability. Some mental health disorders are so severe, however, that they do rise to the level of disability.

How a Physical Disability May Affect Your Mental Health

If you have a physical disability, it can affect your mental health in many different ways. Common experiences include:

  • Adjustment: You may develop a physical disability later in life, or your lifelong disability may change over time, requiring you to adjust to new ways of life. This period of adjustment may present challenges for your mental health.
  • Isolation: Some people with physical disabilities isolate themselves as they try to come to terms with their body, identity, and disability. Others may wish to socialize, but their disability prevents them from moving around easily or physically seeing others. Some people with disabilities experience isolation due to the social rejection or discrimination. Children in particular may experience bullying if their disability makes them visibly different.
  • Depression: The CDC estimates that adults with disabilities experience mental distress nearly five times more than adults without disabilities.

Intellectual Disabilities and Mental Health

What Are IDDs?

An IDD is an intellectual and/or developmental disorder. IDDs affect a person’s ability to learn, reason, socialize, communicate, and develop.

Often, IDDs severely impact a person’s ability to live on their own. These conditions are permanent and typically diagnosed during childhood.

Disability vs. Disorder

It’s important to note that having an intellectual disability is different from having a mental disorder. Intellectual disabilities severely affect your general mental functioning, including your ability to reason, learn, problem solve, and engage in abstract thinking. In contrast, mental health disorders affect your mood, thought patterns, and behaviors, but do not have a direct impact on your cognitive abilities.

Double Diagnosis

It is possible to be diagnosed with both an IDD and a mental health disorder. In fact, one study estimates that nearly 40% of children with an IDD also have a co-occurring mental health disorder.

8 Types of Therapy for Individuals with Disabilities

There are many different types of therapy that individuals with disabilities may find helpful to address their physical and/or mental health. Depending on the particular disability, some common therapies include:

  1. Occupational therapy: Focuses on healing, strength, and adjustment to help patients engage in daily activities with confidence
  2. Physical therapy: Helps improve, strengthen, and recover physical abilities
  3. Speech therapy: Improves communication skills
  4. Art therapy: Uses various forms of art to improve psychological and emotional health
  5. Music therapy: Uses music to address physical, mental, and emotional health
  6. Equine therapy: Facilitates engagement with horses to improve emotional health and social skills
  7. Massage therapy: Uses physical massage to release tension and improve physical and mental health
  8. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Addresses unhelpful or negative thought patterns that affect emotional and mental health

Seeking Therapy as a Person with a Disability

Finding mental health support can be challenging if you have a disability. Here are some tips to help you find the care you need:

  • Choose the right therapist: Finding the right therapist can be a challenge, and for people with disabilities, it’s often even harder. Make sure to choose a therapist who has experience with your particular disability and who understands how your disability affects your mental health. Click here to find a therapist near you.
  • Find a support group: Support groups can be an excellent resource for people with disabilities as well as for people with certain mental health disorders, such as addiction. You may benefit from an in-person or online community of people facing similar challenges together.

Prioritize all aspects of your health: Your disability may feel overwhelming at times, but it is just one aspect of your overall health. Don’t be afraid to seek help for your mental health as well as your disability. You deserve care and support for all aspects of your health.


About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.