Mind matters; Mental health when living with disability

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Did you know almost half of all Australians will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime? People with disability are at greater risk of developing a mental health condition than other members of their community and often find speaking out and seeking support difficult.

Some factors that can contribute to poor mental health in people with disability include social exclusion, financial hardship, loss of independence, bullying, discrimination and self-acceptance.

Approximately, one in nine Australians aged between 16 and 85 have both a physical and mental health condition at the same time, with anxiety disorder the most common, affecting around 1.4 million Australian adults with a physical condition.

Significant underfunding of mental health services, delays in accessing support due to high demand and the huge amount of stigma surrounding mental health mean people often do not access nor receive the treatment they require.

Michael was born with spina bifida and has faced difficulties with his mental health over time. The trauma of having over 40 surgeries throughout his lifetime has meant he cannot head through the doors of the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide without feeling sick.

Going under the knife of multiple surgeons and dealing with the emotions of failed operations, Michael says he only truly started to notice a decline in his mental health as an adult, when further challenges caused anxiety to rear its ugly head.

“It’s not until I became an adult that it really affected me,” he says.

Michael suffers from Agoraphobia, which is a fear of open spaces, and describes anxiety as “a silent assassin.”

“When I am put in a situation where there are open spaces, I feel my heart racing in my chest, I feel shortness of breath … I start to shake and feel like I am going to pass out,” he says.

In particular, Michael says the surgeries, sick days and time-off meant holding employment proved difficult at times, however, being blessed with an understanding employer enabled him to continue working throughout his periods of recovery.

“You have to have a good support system around you and do something you enjoy doing.”

In his experience, mental health conditions have affected his work, personal and social life, but Michael has noticed his state of mind improve through regular exercise at his local gym.

He returned to the gym only recently after being sidelined with medical issues for a few years. Michael has between two to three personal training sessions a week which he organises around work and interstate travel.

“Since starting I have seen a huge change in my mental health,” he says.

“Some days I feel like I want to stay in bed and do nothing, but that is getting less and less through going to the gym.”

Michael puts it down to the fact regular exercise releases endorphins and serotonin, in turn improving our moods.

“As a self-confessed chocoholic it was awesome finding out that dark chocolate can also release endorphins, so a combination of both has helped my mental health … more the gym than dark chocolate.”

He is hoping the therapeutic personal training sessions will be covered in his National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) plan soon.

To help cope with everything he was going through, Michael spoke to his friend in Brisbane who works as a psychologist and underwent cognitive behavioural therapy at the Centre for Treatment of Anxiety and Depression.

This therapy teaches a person self-help strategies to help identify and challenge negative or unhealthy thoughts, feelings or behaviours.

Michael says although cognitive behavioural therapy didn’t deliver the results he was after, it did help in other ways.

“For me personally it didn’t work … but it did help me with some coping skills.”

These strategies, along with the occasional use of benzodiazepines, a medication prescribed to ease anxiety symptoms, have helped Michael manage his panic attacks.

He says speaking to his trusted psychologist helped uncover things he didn’t realise were the cause of his anxiety, mainly all of his hospitalisations and surgeries.

Michael’s group of friends helped him work through how he was feeling, but he also recognised a lack of understanding within his family.

“Family members really don’t understand. Unless you’re going through it, it’s hard to explain and they don’t understand why you have to see a psychologist,” he says.

Speaking out and seeking support for your mental health condition is an important and necessary step in your recovery.

“In the beginning I didn’t want to talk to anyone,” Michael explains.

“I kept asking ‘why should I have to speak to someone else?’ I just want to forget about it, hoping it would go away. But it just gets worse, so you need to talk,” he says.

When asked about the prevalence of mental health issues among people with disability, Michael believes having spoken with other people with disabilities, it is a real issue.

“I have liaised with a number of disability organisations in the past and have spoken to their members and a lot of them are going through depression and anxiety.”

He says sometimes people feel it’s their fault and find themselves asking ‘why me?’.

“It’s so important to talk about it, or write it in a journal, it’s all about getting it off your chest,” he stresses.

Alongside the difficulty of speaking out, there is a high level of stigma around mental health that needs to be broken.

“It really makes a person going through that situation feel isolated and alone so people around them need to gain a better understanding of what they are going through,” Michael says.

Building your self-esteem and resilience, finding your purpose, gaining independence and building healthy and beneficial relationships, all start with a nurturing and caring support system. This support network can include family, friends and specialist health professionals.

“You need to have a support system that has your back and believes what you’re going through,” Michael adds.

“You’ve got a disability but it’s not the end of your life.”

With one in every five Australians experiencing a mental health condition, there are a number of useful resources and helplines available to help you cope with and speak out about your mental health difficulties. You can start with the suggested articles below.

What has your journey been with mental health? Tell us in the comment section.

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