This is the first in a multi-part series dealing with mental health issues and impact that mental illness has on disability.
Once upon a time, and not that long ago at all, I woke up on a coldish spring morning and the first thought in my head was “I shouldn’t be alive anymore.” I was in the midst of dealing with some personal issues with my caregivers, along with the ever-present fight with my state agencies to maintain my coverage, and on top of that, I was being excluded from a social group that meant a lot to me because of my disability. It felt like the world was fighting against me and I was losing ground. I thought, for a very long moment, that maybe the fight wasn’t worth having anymore. Maybe the pain and angst weren’t worth it. And maybe everyone around me would be better off if I was dead. I don’t think feeling like a burden is anything new at times when you have a significant disability, but I think for most of us if we’re lucky, the feeling doesn’t stick. But for some of us it does.
Studies have shown that people with physical disabilities are at “dramatically elevated risk” for depression. Often, people with disabilities, especially those that are acquired later in life, must adapt to a whole new world that wasn’t built for them. Everything from getting out of bed to going on dates is different, and often more difficult. And in some ways, the mentality of disability – the mentality that your doctors and caseworkers may tell you to have – makes things worse. Hope, for example, is a positive emotion, but actively spending all your time and energy waiting for a cure instead of adapting to the life you have now can be detrimental to your mental health. Subsisting on hope and hope alone feeds the helplessness that makes healing and moving forward even more difficult then it already might be.
Furthermore, choosing to see life in those terms (being closer to able-bodied is better than being more disabled) is incredibly harmful. Often, people with disabilities are praised by well-meaning friends, family, and even strangers for needing less assistance than others. It’s seen as better to need a walker than a wheelchair, but what does that tell those of us who need a wheelchair? And what about those of us who have progressed from needing a walker to needing a wheelchair due to the natural aging process or the progression of a disability? Framing things in terms of “better” and “worse” creates a false sense of failure in many of us. As a result, many of us are inundated with messages regarding our perceived lack of ability instead of our possibilities and capabilities.
Aimee Mullins, an actress, athlete, and advocate who was born without fibula bones, gave a fantastic TED Talk (who am I kidding, all of her TED Talks are fantastic) in which she explains that the idea of “overcoming adversity” is really missing the point. In order to strengthen the best parts of ourselves, we must adapt to the situation we are in instead of trying to sidestep a difficult or unwanted experience. In this way, we as a community need to deal with disability with a much more purposeful, straightforward intent. We need to change this idea that the “best” way of being disabled is to not be disabled. Only if and when we do that can we truly have a more mentally healthy outlook.