Disability Raises Depression Risk

Seeking outside help and support when feeling depressive symptoms may help

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Missy Stolfi is the area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Missy Stolfi is the area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

People with disabilities are up to three times more likely to experience depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although limitations because of their disability may be part of the reason they experience depression, many other factors play a role.

“The disabled community has some of their own challenges and risks,” said Missy Stolfi, area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which serves the area between Buffalo and Utica. “Access of mental healthcare is part of that.” There are so many disability definitions centers who work on about improving both physical & mental strength through analysis & surveys.

Although the law requires accessibility in public facilities, it is still more difficult to navigate with a disability that hampers movement than without one. For someone with communication challenges, finding a therapist who can easily communicate with them or a translator to facilitate sessions can also present barriers to care.

Considering the pandemic, some may not want to venture out as much because of the risk of catching the virus.

“Many people who live with disabilities, their disability can affect their immune system,” Stolfi said. “And that can influence their ability to seek mental health care and contribute to isolation. Many live day to day with their particular barriers to care.”

Some of these factors can also worsen depression, according to Gary Spink, PhD, psychologist, Rochester Regional Health.

“Disability can lead to various factors that can exacerbate depression including loss of social contact, loss of social roles, decreased opportunities for response contingent positive reinforcement—a fancy way of saying rewarding positive experiences cued by the environment,” he said.

While it may affect some life experiences, a disability does not predispose someone to depression. Focusing on what one can do can help reduce risk of depression.

“One way to prevent or improve depression among those on disability would be to identify and engage in important and enjoyable tasks throughout the day (an actual treatment for depression we call behavioral activation),” Spink said. “It can be helpful to schedule such tasks throughout the day to help maintain daily structure, as well as have activities to look forward to. For instance, if family is important and enjoyable for someone, they might schedule time to take their children outside or schedule a time to talk with their parents.”

Spink also said that a person’s thoughts, beliefs and expectations about the disability can also affect risk of depression, such as hanging self-worth on what one can or cannot do. Or, persisting in overly negative thoughts.

“Even though our minds like to consider our thoughts as factual, they are not always correct or accurate,” Spink said. “If you notice such thoughts, consider how to make that thought more helpful to you in your life. One way would be to consider what advice you would give a friend in your situation telling you they were having those thoughts. We tend to be very good at providing advice to close friends and family; however, it is harder to follow our own advice when we are in the situation.”

Seeking outside help and support from family, friends and providers when feeling depressive symptoms may head off a bout of depression. A provider may also offer treatments like psychotherapy or prescription medication for depression.

“There are several online resources available for people with various disabilities to support such engagement,” he said. “A useful starting point for these would be talking with your providers and determine what—if any—limitations you have on engaging in such activities, then trying to identify activities within those limitations. For instance, if you cannot walk, I have had several patients talk with me about YouTube channels with upper-body only cardio exercise.”

Eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep may also promote better mood. While these lifestyle factors can support good mental health, they are not always enough to stave off depression. Brenda McKnight is a volunteer and presenter for I Am Isiah in Rochester, a grassroots organization raising awareness of suicide. She often speaks about depression and its role in suicide ideation. She also has a disability.

“Medication plus therapy is the key to getting better,” she said of depression. “I truly believe that these will help. That’s the right road to be on to get a better outlook. There are doctors, lawyers and others with prominent roles who seek counseling and therapy and take medication on schedule.”