When someone is living with a disability, many of the physical challenges they overcome on a daily basis are obvious to those around them. But one of the most brutal struggles they may face often stays hidden from everyone—and it can be more debilitating and dangerous than any other health issue they cope with.
Right now, 20 to 30 percent of Americans with a long-term disability are living with depression or anxiety, compared to 10 percent of the non-disabled population. In fact, depression is one of the most common secondary conditions associated with a disability or chronic illness, but also one of the most commonly ignored.
During Mental Health Awareness Month this May, you can be the first line of defense against depression and anxiety by learning more about mental illness and how to recognize the signs in someone you care about.
What is mental illness, and how does it impact individuals with a disability?
Mental illness covers a variety of conditions, such as depression and anxiety, and can affect one’s thinking, mood, behavior, and ability to function. The factors that make someone more susceptible to mental illness include genetics, environmental exposure before birth (such as exposure to drugs in the womb) and one’s natural brain chemistry. However, those living with a disability have additional risk factors for depression and anxiety:
- Medications – Certain medications, such as anticonvulsants to control epileptic seizures or antispastic agents to treat spinal injuries, have been found to cause depression.
- Social isolation – If an individual is homebound or unable to participate in social activities like they used to, the loneliness and isolation can feel overwhelming. In fact, isolation can shorten life expectancy as much as smoking cigarettes, being overweight or leading a sedentary lifestyle.
- Becoming recently disabled – A disability can impact one’s sense of purpose and self-esteem if they have to leave a job they love or are forced to rely on others’ help. The loss of independence for many can be devastating, and the grieving process can be long.
- Brain chemistry – Medical conditions, such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, can damage the part of the brain that controls emotion as can a traumatic brain injury.
Recognizing the signs of depression and anxiety in your loved one
As a friend, family member or caregiver, you may be the first person to recognize depression or anxiety in someone close to you. While many people want to find their way out of this mental black hole, they may hesitate to ask for help or even be embarrassed to admit they have a problem. If your loved one is showing any of the following signs, it’s critical they speak with a healthcare provider:
- Constantly feeling sad, angry or anxious
- Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness or worthlessness
- Insomnia or sleeping too much
- Problems concentrating, remembering or making discussions
- Loss of interest in their favorite activities
- Overeating or refusing to eat
- Panic attacks
- Avoiding social situations
- Thoughts or threats of suicide
Addressing mental illness can be a hard talk to have with someone, especially when you’ve never been in their shoes, but it can be life-saving. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a helpful step-by-step guide to help you initiate the conversation and find the care your loved one needs. However, if at any time they threaten to hurt themselves, don’t wait—In the United States, contact the National Suicide Prevention Line immediately at 1-800-273-TALK. You can reach Crisis Services in Canada at1-833-456-4566; they also offer text and chat
Overcoming mental illness for a higher quality of life
With 47 million people in North America living with depression or anxiety, it’s one of the most common health conditions affecting people today, but one that too often stays in the shadows because of the stigma it just can’t shake. Through your understanding and support, you can help your loved one manage the symptoms of the disease with medication and therapy, and find the happiness they deserve.