I vividly remember being rocked on my learning support teacher’s lap in infant school as I cried uncontrollably. The air felt heavy and I just wanted to turn my mind off.
I recall being physically sick and not going to school because the feeling of anxiety was so strong it consumed every ounce of my being.
The night terrors would turn me into a zombie and my obsessive compulsive tendencies would force me into lining up my Barbies in a specific way to save my loved ones from harm.
As an adult, my anxiety worsened and imposter syndrome and PTSD dominated my waking hours.
While the causes are complex, and not something I want to share right now, one thing I can say for certain is that my mental ill health isn’t caused by my disability (a common misconception from non-disabled people).
Yet I’ve been met by comments from others assuming that my depression and anxiety must be directly linked to my impairment and the fact that I am a full-time wheelchair user.
Yes, having my bones break often due to brittle bone condition isn’t a walk in the park, but it’s not the reason I feel this way.
I would actually say the bigger contributor is how unwelcoming this world is for disabled people. For example, I don’t wake up every morning and think to myself, ‘Oh, I’m disabled’. However, when I’m out and about and people stare at me, point or – in some cases – laugh, then I become aware of my disability and can feel embarrassed and ashamed.
Those without disabilities have been sold a lie that being disabled is a bad thing. When they see someone in a wheelchair they say sorry. When a mother gives birth to a child with Down’s syndrome, everyone apologises.
I’ve personally had someone tell me that if they had my disability they would want to end their own lives. Comments like this leave you feeling devastated and, quite frankly, worthless. I go away, questioning: ‘Is my life really that horrendous for someone to make such a remark?’
It’s so ridiculous to me because I see my impairment as an asset. My ‘disability’ has, in fact, given me a very successful career and I lead a busy and interesting life. Hand on heart, I love being me and wouldn’t change that for the world.
My disability is my norm.
So before you assume someone with a disability must be depressed because their lives are inherently terrible, ask yourself this – have you ever met anyone who is 100 per cent happy with who they are and their own lives?
Disabled people also have to consider the practical implications of accessing mental health support
The danger comes when non-disabled people project their own bias, insecurities and assumptions onto the disabled community. When someone constantly tells you that you must be sad because you have an impairment, you can begin to feel depressed or upset.
To add to the complexity of the situation, disabled people are often expected to be happy, resilient and brave and this conflicting narrative can leave our heads in a spin.
Disabled people often feature in what we call ‘inspiration porn’, which is where you see clips of things like a deaf boy hearing for the first time, or a wheelchair user getting out of his chair to walk his daughter down the aisle.
Rarely a week goes by without these videos surfacing, accompanied by comments like ‘you have to see this’, ‘this is so inspirational’ or ‘never give up’.
They exist to make non-disabled people feel better about their own existence. It’s akin to them reasoning: ‘If you think you’ve had a bad day, at least you aren’t that poor sod in the wheelchair. If disabled folk can do it with all their woes, then you have no excuse!’
All these factors can combine into something that makes accessing mental health support as a disabled person harder than it ought to be.
If I’m going to be baring my soul to someone, I want them not to leap to the assumption that I must be down because I am disabled.
This is why I’ve always felt as though I would benefit greatly from a therapist with a disability. It’s not that all disabled people share the same life experiences, but there would be less of a risk of unconscious bias and we’d have some shared ground.
I remember my college counsellor clearly feeling out of depth advising someone with a disability and would repeatedly suggest that I make friends with other disabled people so they could help me feel better.
On top of that, disabled people also have to consider the practical implications of accessing mental health support. Does the clinic have step-free access? Are pamphlets offered in braille or are they easy to read? Are staff trained in sign language? Finding an accessible venue can be extremely difficult, which only adds to the anxiety.
The NHS, as we all know, is overstretched and so accessing mental health support in the first place can be a real issue for everyone.
Private therapy often feels like the only option and it can be costly too. The average disabled person is already spending around £583 per month more than non-disabled people, so therapy may be an expense that many simply cannot afford.
I’m fortunate in that I have been able to access support recently in the form of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). My anxiety has controlled my life for too long and I’ve let other people’s perceptions stop me from seeking help.
But now I am optimistic about having ongoing support.
My main fear, however, is that if society continues to stereotype and label disabled people, many will continue to suffer in silence and not get the help they need or deserve.
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