While there are significant barriers to receiving mental health care for some people with disabilities, research also shows that this care can improve their overall quality of life.
In 2020 alone, more than 46% of adults in the United States received some sort of mental health treatment, whether therapy, medication, or self-led treatment. Therapy is one of the most effective forms of mental health treatment, and millions of people receive therapy every single year.
But therapy does more than just treat mental health conditions ― it can also help build coping skills, provide a space for self-expression, and improve overall quality of life, especially for people living with disabilities.
Ahead, we’ll explore how people with disabilities can benefit from regular therapy, as well as touch on some of the barriers and considerations for disabled people seeking mental health services.
Disabled people often experience increased barriers to treatment when seeking out mental health services. Some of these barriers come from things like physical or financial limitations, while others arise from things like ableism and stigma.
Here are some of the barriers that can prevent people with disabilities from getting the help they need:
Social stigma can negatively affect the mental health of people living with disabilities and make it difficult for them to get the support they need to seek mental health treatment.
Healthcare professional stigma
In addition to social stigmas, healthcare professional stigma can make it hard for people with disabilities to receive the level of care they need to get better. When healthcare professionals allow their personal beliefs about disabilities to influence the care that they provide disabled people, it decreases the quality of care.
Mental health treatment can be expensive, especially for people who have to pay out of pocket or don’t have access to insurance. Many disabled people are unable to work, and those who do work generally earn less, which can make it difficult ― or even impossible ― to be able to afford therapy services.
People with physical disabilities, and even some with mental and intellectual disabilities, face increased barriers to accessing mental health care.
For some disabled people, it can be a challenge to leave the house, especially if they don’t have access to transportation or accommodations. And even virtual care can be challenging for disabled people who don’t have the tools or skills necessary for it.
All of these barriers can make it difficult for disabled people to access to mental health treatment or receive the level of care they need.
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Therapy can help you better understand your own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, especially those that accompany the experience of living with a disability.
Therapy can teach you how to recognize and change the relationship between those thoughts and feelings, to improve your emotional health. And whether you live with a physical disability, mental disability, or both, therapy can give you the skills necessary to cope with and adapt to life with a disability.
Finding a therapist who specializes in disabilities
When we talk about culturally competent care, we often frame it in the context of things like race, ethnicity, and religion. But competent care is also important in disability culture, a culture that encompasses the unique experiences and identities of people living with disabilities.
If you’re new to therapy and want to find a therapist who understands disability culture and what it means to live with a disability, here are a few places to start:
- Ask a doctor to connect you with an informed therapist or another mental health professional who has experience treating people with disabilities.
- Reach out to your city’s or state’s disability organizations for resources on mental health professionals in your area who are familiar with disability culture.
- Browse websites like Inclusive Therapists, or search local social media groups or hashtags, to find mental health professionals in your area.
- Learn more about finding the right therapist for you.
When you live with a disability, it’s important that your therapist understands the effect that disability can have on your life ― not just physically and mentally, but also socially, occupationally, and beyond.
In 2014 research, experts in the field pinpointed several areas that are important for therapists to consider when working with people who live with disabilities. Some examples include:
- having respect for their understanding and experience of the disability and its effects
- being mindful of using inclusive language when speaking about a person’s disabilities
- helping identify and understand barriers that disabled people might experience
- incorporating the individual’s strengths into the therapy’s structure
- adjusting goals and recommendations to accommodate their disabilities
If you’re a therapist who works with people who have disabilities, the most important thing is to continue to educate yourself about the experiences of this disability and how it affects day-to-day life.
Intersectionality and disability
Intersectionality describes the way in which a person’s various identities, including things like gender, race, sexual orientation, and more, interconnect and create unique experiences of oppression and discrimination.
Many of the barriers to treatment that people with disabilities experience arise because of intersectionality.
For example, someone living with a disability who doesn’t have access to health insurance because of a lack of income will experience increased barriers to accessing mental health services. And other factors, such as gender and race, can compound the discrimination and barriers disabled people face when seeking or receiving treatment.
People with all types of disabilities, including physical, mental, intellectual disabilities and others, can benefit from different therapeutic approaches.
For example, chronic pain is one of the most common reasons for disability in the United States, and many studies have explored the benefits of psychotherapy for chronic pain.
Not only can these approaches help people better understand their disability, but they can also help improve coping skills and reduce the mental distress of living with these conditions.
And for people with mental health conditions that are disabilities, therapy may even reduce levels of disability by reducing symptoms of the condition overall. For example, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a serious mental health condition that can cause significant disability in a person’s day-to-day life.
Psychotherapy approaches like CBT and exposure and response prevention (ERP)
And there are many factors that can affect the mental health of disabled people. These factors include social and professional stigma, increased barriers to care, and lack of support and understanding about living with a disability.
If you have a disability, therapy can help improve your mental health, teach you important coping skills, and provide you with the care you need to feel supported.