Mental Disability Awareness - Why it Matters
Overcoming Mental Health Stigmas and Educating Your Community
When a child falls down while playing and skins their knee, you can instantly see how to respond. There’s no time wasted debating whether their knee is really skinned, whether it really hurts, or whether they’re weak for not “just walking it off”–you just head inside for some band-aids and come back with sympathetic and encouraging words.
To all of our detriment, mental health is not treated the same way as physical health. Long-held stigmas get in the way of managing mental illness symptoms and understanding attributes of mental disability, to the point where 53 million Americans deal with a mental illness but only a minority get help dealing. Disabilities are stigmatized in general, both physical and mental; sadly, mental disabilities see even less awareness and understanding from the general public.
In short, we have a golden opportunity to do better for our friends, family, and neighbors.
Mental Illness, Disorder, or Disability?
Many of the steps we can take to be more inclusive are simple and come naturally once we are aware of the issue. 11% of adults have a cognitive disability, while one in five adults has some form of mental illness or disorder that may meet the qualifications to be considered disabling. These already-high numbers are almost certainly under-reported, due to societal stigma and fear of being labeled “crazy.”
This stigma is a byproduct of a time where mental disabilities were not as well understood, and serves no modern purpose. Anyone can be disabled: whether there is a biological/genetic component you are predisposed to, or you are permanently affected by psychological factors (such as trauma) or environmental factors (such as repeated stressors, severely negative thought patterns, or unhealthy sleep/drug/alcohol habits).
Awareness of the existence, prevalence, and abilities of mentally disabled people begins to break down the idea many of us have that they are only their disability, and not people with their own preferences, stories, and triumphs. Reducing the “otherness” of a community you may not belong to deconstructs superficial barriers our society does not need, and fosters a healthier and more productive environment.
Some of the Issues Mentally Disabled People Face
Our society is not well-structured to support mental disabilities, and often those who are disabled rely on their family and friends to navigate a world that does not always welcome them. Their challenges extend far beyond managing their disability itself.
It all often starts in education, with an inordinate number of disabled children not getting the support they need in classes. This may force them to stay home and miss out on common learning experiences, including socializing; it may even prevent them from getting an education altogether. This extends to higher learning, and cuts out many opportunities for career training.
Gainful employment is another hurdle, which can in turn affect access to proper medical care. While federal law prohibits outright discrimination due to disability, disabled people face a systemically hostile workforce. In 2019, only 19% of people living with disabilities were employed. Many struggled, despite their willingness, to find full-time positions with necessary benefits like health insurance.
All together, this makes for some difficult hurdles for anyone with a mental disability. This doesn’t even begin to approach social struggles, where many mentally disabled people–especially those who struggle with communication–either feel unwelcome due to the group focusing on their differences, or awkward due to over-sympathetic treatment that does not respect their independence.
Why Awareness Matters and What We Can Do
These barriers are common for all ends of the spectrum of mental disability. While not considered a disability unless it is chronic and impacts daily life requiring treatment, many mental disorders and illnesses lead to some of the same societal difficulties.
Despite the high rates of people with some level of mental disability, support is limited if recognized as necessary at all; and there’s a terrible cultural misconception that if you need help you’ve failed. There’s no more important takeaway from this article than the following: if you (or someone you love) need help, seek help. Illnesses are treatable, and the attributes of disabilities that disrupt daily life can be addressed with proper care.
Raising Awareness One-on-One
First things first, some of the language surrounding mental disabilities is contentious and confusing. You don’t need to take a course in etymology to speak to people with disabilities, but there are a few general rules to follow to avoid othering or alienating people:
Do not refer to a group of disabled people as “the” (“the blind,” for example) when you can instead say, “people who are blind”; never refer to non-disabled people as comparatively “normal”; and avoid painting disabled people as “heroes” or “victims” due to their circumstances (eg, “wheelchair user” has a far less helpless connotation than “wheelchair-bound”).
The best way to start is promoting acceptance at home. Show kids in your family what those who are disabled can do with them, rather than regretting what they can’t. Spend weekends with grandparents, even if it’s harder to hold a linear conversation since Grandpa’s Alzheimers; or take a spontaneous trip with the uncle who had a stroke that affects his ability to concentrate. Emphasize empathy, stop to listen without pity or disdain, and you have already created a more welcoming and constructive environment than many disabled people are used to.
Raising Awareness Through Community Outreach
While all good practices start at home, there are plenty of ways you can get involved in helping spread awareness of mental disability in your community. Think of the barriers we’ve discussed that disabled people face: at school, at work, with healthcare, and more. Consider how you offer support (without assuming a disrespectful “savior” role).
For example, offering transport to medical care and advocacy once there can be priceless to disabled individuals without a healthcare support network. You might also think of places around town that do the bare minimum to support disabilities legally, and petition them to raise their standards: namely, educational accommodations and job placement organizations. Some organizations offer workplace training for mental disability awareness, and local universities might be open to community outreach for underprivileged disabled people who seek continuing education.
Lastly, an excellent way to raise awareness is to organize “green ribbon” events in your area. A good source of inspiration is this calendar, which lists May as Mental Disability Awareness Month and the first week of October for Mental Illness Awareness Week. A community fundraiser will get everyone out and talking, as well as donating to your favorite mental health charity.
Promoting Good Mental Health
Better mental disability awareness can help us build more inclusive communities that focus on our combined strengths rather than our perceived weaknesses. By expanding access to societal systems for mentally disabled people and reducing our tendency to other them, we can make a real difference.
The higher awareness is raised, the easier it is to collectively combat ableism and promote effective advocacy. That means making our world accessible, so everyone can contribute positively and be part of the team–the work you do toward this matters!