Mental Illness and Disability

I’ve just been reading a very good article by Naomi Jacobs aka @lilwatchergirl published in today’s Guardian. The article, entitled Disability: We can all do better, is a response to last week’s SCOPE poll showing that 90% of people say they have never had a disabled person in their home.

The SCOPE poll illustrates two things. Firstly, that disabled people are still more invisible as a group in our society than non-disabled. Secondly, those with unseen disabilities are even more invisible.

Naomi quoted a figure from a report by the Papworth Trust, that there are 11 million people with disabilities in the UK today. Some of those who commented on her article questioned this figure, particularly in relation to the definition of disabled, and who fits the criteria to be described this way.

A few quotes:

Doomzuk “Whoa, whoa, back up there a second….11 million? Really? Out of a population of …62 million? So thats almost one in 6 people registered as disabled? Something doesn’t feel right about that…..”

Earwigger “The most disabling thing I have ever encountered is the attitude of people who cannot believe that (a) I am disabled or (b) there are so many of us. Don’t forget, not all disabilities are permanent. Not all disabilities are visible”

jforbes I’m not sure that conflating physical disability and mental illness is particularity helpful as the issues faced will be different.

Myzlt As with all stats, it depends exactly where the lines are drawn. A lot of those disabled people pass by completely unnoticed

These are just a taste of the opinions expressed by readers. Many of them seem to be suggesting that the definiton of disability is too wide, too inclusive. Some suggested that people with mental health problems should not be included in this definition, others disputed this.

Official Definitions:

The definition of disabled according to the Disability Discrimination Act is

“someone who has a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. For the purposes of the Act:

  • substantial means neither minor nor trivial
  • long term means that the effect of the impairment has lasted or is likely to last for at least 12 months (there are special rules covering recurring or fluctuating conditions)
  • normal day-to-day activities include everyday things like eating, washing, walking and going shopping
  • a normal day-to-day activity must affect one of the ‘capacities’ listed in the Act which include mobility, manual dexterity, speech, hearing, seeing and memory”

The World Health Organisation defines disability as

“an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations. Thus disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives”


Both these definitions of disability seem to encompass mental health problems. The WHO is a little more wordy and difficult to decipher. However it is interesting, in that it defines disability not just as a matter of a person being limited in their capability to undertake certain tasks, but also includes the concept of society itself being a limiting factor.

However, both these definitions are imposed by official organisations onto the citizen. How do the people who experience mental health problems define themselves? Is disabled a label they feel comfortable with, or even recognise?

A straw poll of some tweeters with mental health problems, asking if they regarded themselves as disabled, or have ever done, resulted in these responses:

@BlissfulBlues Never considered myself disabled. Wouldn’t know what to categorise it as. Although I have felt completely helpless against it.

@MelissaMashburn sort of, I am disabled because I cannot work in a normal work environment, but at the same time I am working hard to live as normal as possible

@HovellingHermit Yes, having agoraphobia and anxiety issues impairs you severely in performing usual activities like a physical disability might.

@HidiHidi It is not how I choose to describe myself, rather it is a term that others use.

@SocialWorkerDan as someone who has had long standing MH issues in the past I find it a bit tricky what to describe myself as.

@Elektrafair1 Yes, just because of the severe agoraphobia, when I kick that I will go back to work, the rest be damned…

@andesha I don’t consider myself disabled, but have been disabled by mental health probs in the past.

@SophiaPangloss Yep. It’s the only way to counter stigma, we’ve got to staun up an be countit. Disability monitoring is a means to that end.

@NCCLols I class myself as a disabled person. In fact it’s official cos the employment tribunal said I was too.

@N5_1BU A resounding no. He said ‘restricted’ better word.

@tinathewife No, of course not!!! It’s just part of being me. It’s like asking if having green eyes is a disability.

@IntervalThinks I never regarded myself as disabled, though I certainly was temporarily when psychotic. Disabled seems to imply irrecoverable

Most people who responded don’t regard themselves as disabled.  Furthermore, it seems that overwhelmingly disability is perceived as being something negative or undesirable. It also appears that many people are thinking about disability in relation to employment. Disabled is a label we are given by organisations or the Government, when we are unable to undertake certain tasks, such as looking after a home, or more often, going to work. I certainly didn’t regard myself as disabled, despite having experienced depression and anxiety for 20 years, until I was advised to apply for Disability Living Allowance, and was successful in my application. I too felt that disabled related to the physical world, not my fragile mind.

However, I feel that there are two aspects to disability that people with mental health problems might consider.

Firstly, on a personal level.  We define ourselves, give ourselves an identity,  through labels we consciously or subconsciously assign to ourselves, in the warm sun or the cold dark hours of the night. These ideas of self are highly personal, deeply intimate, and shape how we feel about ourselves, others, and our interactions in the world. In the personal sense we may reject the label of disabled as being something that applies to others, that does not fit the concept of ‘me’. We may see it as something negative, or something alien.

Secondly, there is a sphere, outside the self, where we act as community. Not only act as community, but are also perceived by others as community.  Humanity has always formed groups or tribal structures. Families, villages, towns. But also groups of shared identity, experience and purpose. Football teams, political parties, religions, occupations, class. Often these shared identities are formed in opposition to other identities, or as a means to create an effectice voice.

We live in a time and space where the Government is trying to bring through savage cuts to disability and sickness benefits, and where people experiencing both physical disability and mental health problems are too often victims of crime. I would suggest that as people with mental health problems, we are particularly vulnerable to those cuts to benefits, many of which were initially designed for those with physical disabilities.

While I understand that many of us dislike the term disabled and feel that it is negative, it seems that it is the one most recognised by Government and society. I realise that to be called disabled may not be felt appropriate by people on a personal level. However, I would suggest that this is a fault of the word. The term disabled suggests complete inability, and this is clearly an inaccurate description for the vast majority of  people with physical (or learning) disabilities as well as mental health problems. The term is equally inadequate for everyone that it defines.

Additionally, In order to form an effective opposition to those who would take away our rights to safety, security and dignity, in order to be heard and seen by those in power, we do need to unite together with people with seen or physical disabilities under a banner of community. In this context certainly, disabled would not be a negative term, but an expression of solidarity, and an unwillingness to go unheard and unseen. For us all to be more visible.

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6 thoughts on “Mental Illness and Disability

  1. Pingback: Am I disabled? : This Compassionate Life

  2. Pingback: Am I disabled? | This Compassionate Life

  3. Great post! I totally agree with your conclusion- while individuals may or may not consider themselves disabled, it behooves all of us to campaign under the banner of disability because the effect is often the same.

    (@andesha on twitter)

  4. Excellent post. I am considered by the government to be disabled because I am unable to work due to the fact that I have Bipolar Disorder I and PTSD. I am not ashamed of being disabled and resent the stigma surrounding the disability label of those of us with invisible health issues. I used to be a very high functioning adult and most people have a very difficult time accepting that I (and the gov’t) consider myself disabled.

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