The Mental Health of People with Disabilities


National Disabilities Awareness Month, observed throughout the month of March, raises awareness about the inclusion of people with disabilities and addresses the barriers that those with disabilities face. This gives us an opportunity to recognize the ways disability impacts people’s lives, provide education on available services, and highlight ways to be an advocate.

Current estimates indicate that just in the United States, one in four adults — that is 61 million people — have a disability. Disabilities limit the functioning of a person and their ability to carry out activities of daily living. These limitations may include difficulty walking or climbing stairs, hearing, seeing, concentrating, remembering, or making decisions.

Although often deemed as a single population, people with disabilities constitute a diverse group of people with a wide range of needs. While certain disabilities are very visible, others may be hidden or not immediately noticeable. Similarly, disability may impact people in very different ways.

Many people living with disabilities experience significant physical challenges, such as immobility or extreme pain, as well as social challenges, such as isolation or being excluded from social events and activities. In addition, people with disabilities may have trouble finding a job, attending school, and getting around outside their homes.

Dealing with these types of challenges can take a toll on any person’s mental health. Having a disability has been established as a risk factor for poor mental health. Compounding the issue of disability, people living with disabilities frequently experience loneliness, abuse from caregivers, discrimination, and lack of access to proper care.

According to the CDC:

  • In the United States, adults with disabilities report experiencing frequent mental distress almost five times as often as adults without disabilities.
  • Frequent mental distress is linked to adverse health behaviors, increased utilization of health services, mental disorders, chronic diseases, and functional limitations.
  • People with disabilities are more likely to live below the federal poverty level and more likely to lack access to health care due to costs.

Barriers To Mental Health Care

Mental health professionals as a group strive to properly serve the mental health needs of diverse and marginalized groups, including individuals with disabilities. Nevertheless, people with disabilities often encounter challenges when seeking mental health treatment, such as insufficient services available, lack of health insurance coverage, prohibitive costs, lack of reliable transportation (particularly for a person with a mobility-related disability), communication impediments, and provider misconceptions about disabilities, among others.

Improving Mental Health

  • Taking Care of Mind and Body. Paying attention to your physical and emotional health is essential. Taking care of the body is very important and can have a significant positive impact on one’s mental health. Focus on eating healthy meals, exercising (whatever that may look like for you), practicing meditation and mindfulness, getting plenty of sleep, and limiting alcohol consumption.
  • Connecting with Others. Talking to family, friends, and other loved ones about your mental health concerns and how you are feeling can be of great value. Consider increasing your participation in the community. Try signing up for a class or pursuing a new hobby.
  • Counseling and Therapy. Accessing mental health services such as counseling, or therapy is crucial for those living with disabilities who are struggling with mental health issues. Talking to a qualified and trusted mental health professional can be a great way to process difficult emotions, such as frustration and anger, and can also be an effective way to enhance a person’s confidence and self-esteem.

Mental Health Resources

There are several resources available to people with disabilities who are struggling with mental health issues.

(Co-Authors include Dr. Mercado’s Mental Health Lab at UTRGV Frances Morales, Andy Torres, Amanda Palomin)


Dr. Alfonso Mercado