May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health is an important topic for anyone and everyone to become well-versed in, if not for oneself, then for their friends, family, or co-workers. Issues with mental health, whether they be temporary struggles or a clinical diagnosis, are much more common in disabled people. In all sorts of disabled communities, physical access to care, financial access to care, and provider bias are real issues preventing disabled people from getting quality mental healthcare and living their best lives.
All over the country, communities are facing a mental healthcare crisis, whether it be lack of available professionals, difficult insurance loop-de-loops, or the aforementioned access issues. Studies completed by the National Alliance for Mental Illness have shown that as many as 1 in 20 adults and 1 in 6 teens and children experience a mental health condition each year. Chances are, if you don’t struggle with a mental health condition, someone in your family or circle of friends does. In this same study, fewer than half of these adults actually received effective treatment.
For people with disabilities, care is even more inaccessible physically, if a building doesn't have ramps or elevators or the doorways can’t accommodate a wheelchair, financially for people of all levels of socioeconomic status and demographics, and additionally due to provider bias. Seasoned mental healthcare (and often physical healthcare) providers believe that disabled people must surely be depressed about their condition or situation and aren’t worth the effort of treatment. This bias is especially present for young people and people with communication difficulties or atypical communication. New generations of mental healthcare professionals are receiving better training and education to combat these issues, but the current leading therapists and psychiatrists are likely older men and women with outdated views on who is allowed to have a serious diagnosis, and who is simply paranoid or need to come to terms with their life as is. Additionally, not all therapies work for every individual, and not all therapies are available in all areas. Some people thrive on medication, others thrive on support groups, others on behavioral therapy and conditioning.
Especially for serious mental health conditions, self-care and community engagement cannot replace professional assessments and tools. However, checking in with people with mental health conditions, especially disabled people, is extremely important. Asking your friends, family, or co-workers genuinely how they are doing, whether or not they’ve eaten that day, if they can join you for a fun or relaxing outing can be invaluable.
I had the pleasure today of speaking with Amanda Urgolites, a young woman from Hastings, Pennsylvania, competing for the title of Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania 2022 in Johnstown. This conference and competition event empowers women and similarly identified individuals to advocate for wheelchair users and disabled people with a unique platform they are passionate about. Amanda’s platform is accessible mental health.
When speaking to her about what we can do to help our fellow humans, Amanda emphasized the importance of adaptability and planning ahead.
“It took me 3 years to get professional help,” she revealed. “It’s so important to have support at home while going through the difficult process of finding the right provider.”
An avid artist, Amanda loves helping people find new hobbies and experiences that bring them joy.
“I think that everyone should have a hobby,” Amanda said while showing me all sorts of adaptable options. “People may think they can’t, say, knit or play an instrument, but maybe they can do arm or finger knitting, or play an electronic instrument or one that stays on a table while you play it.”
Preparation is also key in assisting your future self or someone in your community with necessary tasks that may require too much energy or effort.
“Identifying safe foods that you can acquire at any time, make safely, and won’t trigger adverse allergies or digestive issues is extremely helpful. For me, that’s buttered noodles!”
For more information about Mental Health Awareness Month and resources for mental health conditions and support, please visit the website of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, at https://nami.org.