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Understanding mental health and disability

People living with disability often experience difficulty in maintaining their mental health. Learning about the importance of mental health, its relationship to disability, and how to spot the signs of distress is a key step in accessing treatment and improving overall wellbeing.

The relationship between disability and mental health

In Australia there are approximately 4.4 million people living with a disability, making up around 18% percent of our total population. Research has shown that the impacts of disability on a person’s wellbeing are complex, with many people living with a disability reporting poorer overall health compared to the rest of the population.

The most recent data on the health of Australia’s population helps paint a picture of the relationship between disability and mental health:

  • 36% of people with a severe disability and 32% of people with milder forms of disability report having mood disorders (e.g. depression) compared with 9% of those without disability.
  • Adults with disability are more likely (32%) to report very high or high levels of mental distress compared with adults without disability (8%)
  • The most common mental illnesses among people with disability are psychoses and mood disorders (7.5%)
  • Mental disorders were reported by 23% of the people with disability as their main condition
  • 58% of participants with disability responding to The National Health Survey (2017-2018) reported a mental or behavioural condition compared with 14% of participants without disability
What are the signs of poor mental health in people with disability

The signs of poor mental health be tricky to spot if you don’t know what to look out for. General signs to look out for include:

  • Changes in mood, particularly feeling sad or down
  • Isolation and withdrawal from friends, family and other social circles
  • Excessive worry and preoccupation with fears
  • Changes in energy levels and sleep cycle

It is important to note that the warning signs for poor mental health can be especially difficult to notice in people living with intellectual disability. This is due to a number of barriers including difficulties in communication which can make it harder for someone to express their feelings and mood.

If you are caring for a person with an intellectual disability a few key tips include:

  • Notice changes in mood and behaviour, including appetite and sleep changes.
  • Pay attention to facial expressions and other gestures that may indicate a low mood or unhappiness
  • Notice your bias. It can be easy to assume that any distress a person with intellectual disability experiences is a symptom of their disability. Often times this leads to dismissing a deeper problem, or assuming that changes in a person’s mood or behaviour are related to a physical illness. It’s important to remember that mental health is a real and vital part of a person’s wellbeing.
  • Be sure to take any signs of change seriously. Getting in touch with a doctor to rule out physical illness is important, but don’t be afraid to ask for referral to a psychologist or other mental health practitioners if you think the person you care for is experiencing mental distress.
Mental health and disability resources and further reading
  • The University of NSW has a number of resources for carers and professionals in the disability sector: Here you can learn important statistics, and more about the impacts of disability o mental health, as well how to care for yourself while caring for someone with a disability.
  • Disability Gateway provides a list of mental health support services including helplines and online counselling resources.
  • For information on the NDIS and mental health, please refer to the NDIS website.

If you would like to speak about the different behavioural and allied health supports available to support your mental health and wellbeing and a part of your NDIS plan, you can also get in touch with Interaction’s Behavioural and Allied Health Services team here.

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