Common Mental Health Issues Among Wheelchair Users

Wheelchair Users and Mental Health

The treatment of disabled individuals in the United States before World War II was cruel and heartless. Forced sterilization of mentally or physically incapacitated people occurred with little pushback from society at this time. In his book Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in America, author Alex Stern states: “…supported by legislators, social reformers, and medical professionals, the eugenics movement resulted in sterilization laws … motivated by crude heredity theories that suggested certain disabilities could be stopped by sterilizing physically and mentally disabled individuals. Proponents claimed it would protect society from dealing with ‘degenerate stock.’

The fight for civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s eventually fueled the demand by disabled people to be treated with more dignity and respect. Enacted in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ensured people with disabilities were not discriminated against in the workplace and had the right to public accommodations, such as wheelchair ramps, accessible restrooms, and assistive technology. The ADA further provided disabled individuals with more financial and housing resources.

Despite these advancements, disabled individuals–especially those who rely on wheelchairs for mobility–continue to face mental health challenges associated with their disabilities. Coping with daily encounters involving stigma, discrimination, and financial stress can exacerbate mental health challenges for individuals with disabilities. The constant strain of navigating inaccessible environments, a complex healthcare system, and societal barriers only intensify feelings of hopelessness and isolation.

Common Mental Health Issues Experienced By Individuals Using Wheelchairs

Depression and Anxiety

Non-disabled people take their ability to walk for granted. Getting out of bed, running to the car because you are late, walking several blocks to the office after parking, walking to lunch with friends, remembering you need to stop at the store for a few things–the list of tasks that require the instant use of your legs is endless.

For those in wheelchairs, getting from one place to another—even the short distance from their bedroom to the kitchen—can be difficult. Physical barriers such as stairs and narrow doorways and inadequate infrastructure like inaccessible public transportation or poorly designed buildings can lead to feelings of frustration, depression, and anxiety.

The CDC reports that disabled adults experience mental distress nearly five times more often than non-disabled adults. Many people in wheelchairs are socially isolated and unable to participate in activities outside their home. Sometimes, the only human-to-human interaction they receive is when a home health aide visits or through doctor appointments.

In addition, wheelchair users often face additional expenses related to mobility aids, medical care, and accessibility modifications. Worrying about whether they can secure adequate financial support to accommodate their disability will take a toll on their psychological and physical health.

Low Self-Esteem

Society places a high value on physical appearance and ability. Studies show that individuals immediately develop a positive first impression of attractive and healthy people they have never met. Alternately, the first impression most people have of seeing someone in a wheelchair is based on negative stereotypes: people in wheelchairs are helpless and a burden to society; they are just too lazy to improve themselves; and they pose an inconvenience to others. Moreover, society tends to overlook or ignore disabled people in public because seeing them triggers personal insecurities about their own health.

Unfortunately, disabled individuals are keenly aware of being disregarded and treated as though they don’t exist. The impact of this avoidance behavior by society severely undermines the sense of belonging and acceptance that is essential for individuals with disabilities to thrive and enjoy optimal health and well-being.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Some individuals may develop PTSD following traumatic experiences related to their disability, such as accidents or incidents of discrimination or violence. The latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice indicate that the rate of violent victimization against disabled people is almost four times that for non-disabled people. Strangers perpetrated fewer violent victimizations against individuals with disabilities (32%) compared to those without disabilities (41%).

Common symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Having flashbacks, intrusive memories, or nightmares about a traumatic event
  • Avoiding places or activities that remind the person about the trauma. Avoidance behavior may lead to increased isolation and agoraphobia in people using wheelchairs
  • Being easily startled and hypersensitive to noises, places, or certain people who may have been involved in the traumatic event
  • Experiencing worsening symptoms of the disorder that causes someone to rely on wheelchairs for mobility

Mental Health Support for Users of Wheelchairs: Government Resources

The following are some of the government resources available to users of wheelchairs who may be looking for mental health support:

  • National Alliance on Mental Illnesses (NAMI) Helpline
  • Mental Health America
  • National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) Find Help
  • Rights of Disabled Individuals (American Disabilities Act)
  • Reporting Employment Discrimination and Harassment
  • NCHPAD Connect

Holistic Care Approaches to Supporting the Mental Health of Wheelchair Users

Holistic care methods improve well-being by integrating physical, emotional, and social factors in personalized treatment plans. Wheelchair users face mental health challenges from societal and physical barriers as well as psychosocial stressors. Examples of psychosocial stressors are social isolation, financial problems, employment challenges, and dealing with accessibility barriers.

Holistic healthcare provides tailored physical, psychological, social, and community support for wheelchair users who are trying to cope with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. This approach includes advocating for accessible environments, counseling and support, connecting with peers, and encouraging active self-care participation.

Tips for wheelchair users to improve their psychological well-being include:

  • Don’t hesitate to connect with friends, family, or support groups who can offer emotional support and encouragement.
  • Set realistic goals for yourself. Break down larger tasks into smaller tasks to keep that sense of accomplishment motivating you.
  • Participate in wheelchair-friendly exercises or activities that keep muscles toned, release endorphins, and increase energy.
  • Learn relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation to reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Consider advocating for more accessibility choices for disabled people in your community by starting a support group.
  • Explore creative outlets like art, music, and writing to express emotions. You might want to try selling your work on Etsy or start a home business website to advertise your creations.
  • Visit state and government websites for disabled individuals to stay up-to-date about the latest changes to disability rights, resources, and assistive technologies.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, seek professional help from counselors, therapists, or support services. Determine what counseling works best for you, and always prioritize self-care over everything else.