Mental health challenges for people with disabilities are more common than you think

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March is National Disability Awareness Month and now is a great time to remember that people with disabilities experience higher levels of mental health challenges. 

There are about 7 million disabled students in the US, making up 14% of national public school enrollment, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. According to University of Illinois at Chicago researchers, as of December 2021, teens with disabilities are up to five times more likely to suffer from mental, emotional, and behavioral health conditions than adolescents without disabilities. Multiple factors contribute to this reality including a lack of mental health professionals trained to assist people with disabilities, discrimination, lack of coverage in healthcare packages, and transportation and affordability challenges. 

What we mean when saying “people with disabilities”

A “disability” is defined federally in many different ways but generally, it is any condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them. It can be present at birth, developmental and arise throughout one’s life, related to an injury, related to a longstanding condition (such as vision loss from diabetes), and be either static, progressive, or intermittent.

There are many types of disabilities and they can affect a person’s:

  • Vision
  • Movement
  • Thinking
  • Remembering
  • Learning
  • Communicating
  • Hearing
  • Mental health
  • Social relationships

Although “people with disabilities” sometimes refers to a single population, this is actually a diverse group of people with a wide range of needs. Two people with the same type of disability can be affected in very different ways. Some disabilities may be hidden or not easy to see.

Unpacking the disparity

Living with multiple identities is both a challenge and a source of pride. It is clear that young people with disabilities are more likely to have poorer mental health than their non-disabled peers. However, people with disabilities are also more likely than others to experience financial hardship and low social support, both of which have been linked with poor mental health outcomes. Individuals with disabilities are also more likely to experience trauma, contributing to a higher case of mental health problems.

While physical and occupational therapy are prioritized, we have failed to prioritize mental healthcare as affordable and accessible for people with disabilities. There are not enough mental health professionals trained to assist people with disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities and autism. If a person has a disability that affects how they communicate, whether it’s hearing, speaking, or understanding, it can be significantly more challenging to find a mental health professional who will know how to use accessibility and inclusion resources and tools to provide services. Additionally, when seeing a mental health professional, symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other brain health conditions are blamed on the disability, when that is not always the case. 

Finally, the cost of mental healthcare is currently not feasible for many people with disabilities, especially those who already have expenses for other medical needs. Treatment for brain health conditions, including the costs of medications, can be very expensive and are not always covered by benefits. Additionally, not having access to affordable housing has led to increases in homelessness amongst people with disabilities, which can have a direct impact on mental health.

Where to turn

Here are some resources that focus on the mental health of people with disabilities:

Autism Speaks

Find providers, information, and resources for people living with autism.

Psychology Today

Filter for a therapist who specializes in patients with disabilities.

Hope Services

Find counseling, case management, and psychiatric services for those with a qualifying mental health diagnosis and a developmental disability.


Online networking groups, providing members with a welcoming and professional environment where they can directly connect with industry peers, ask/answer questions, share resources, seek feedback, and obtain absence and disability management information.

DMEC Mental Health Resources and Tools

Directory of mental health resources as well as those related to COVID-19. 

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

Information and resources for the right mental health care for the needs of people with disabilities.


Promotes human rights for people with intellectual disabilities and provides resources and support for families.

Financial Assistance and Support Services for People with Disabilities

This government listing provides resources on a wide range of tools for people with disabilities to apply for financial assistance with medical treatment, as well as housing resources and tax help.


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