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Honoring International Day of Persons with Disabilities: The Intersection of Disabilities and Mental Health

Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a day designated by the UN to “promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities.” As equally important: “It also seeks to increase awareness of gains to be derived from the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.”

Honoring International Day of Persons with Disabilities: The Intersection of Disabilities and Mental Health

Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a day designated by the UN to “promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities.” As equally important: “It also seeks to increase awareness of gains to be derived from the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.” (In this context, a disability refers to a physical or mental condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities, especially [though not exclusively] one that is recognized by the law.)

It’s impossible to raise awareness of disability issues without also addressing the existence and prevalence of mental health disabilities, and the co-occurring nature of what is traditionally thought of as a “disability,” as in something that presents physically, alongside mental health issues. 

People with disabilities--mental, physical, or otherwise--have been historically misrepresented, maligned, and stigmatized in the US and around the world. And when stigma so often leads to the stripping of rights, lesser care, and overall inequitable treatment by both individuals and systems such as schools and hospitals, it’s necessary to first educate people without knowledge of disabilities. Especially for kids, teens, and their families who may live with disabilities, understanding is key to improving their lives and experiences. At Charlie Health, we are committed to treating the most diverse population of patients possible, with equal compassion and clinical excellence promised to everyone we work with. 

A bit of information on kids, students, and disabilities in the US:

  • There are 7 million students with disabilities in the US, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 
  • This represents 14% of US public school enrollment. 
  • Roughly one-third of these students are diagnosed with specific learning disabilities, which can include dyslexia or traumatic brain injury. 
  • 20% of students with disabilities live with speech or language impairments. 
  • While the federal government guarantees students with disabilities the right to free public education and appropriate special education services, this accessibility varies by state. For example, Texas serves less than 10% of disabled students enrolled in public school, according to recent research by the Pew Center.
  • Students with disabilities are more likely to be categorized as male than female. Research also shows that “ inconsistencies exist by race and ethnicity when it comes to which students are recommended for special education, and that the socioeconomic makeup of a school and achievement markers, such as test scores, may factor in),” also according to Pew. 
  • Find a comprehensive list of learning and other disabilities here. And here’s information on what is considered a disability by the US government

Many students with diagnosed physical and/or learning disabilities also struggle with their mental health. While research on this specific intersection is sparse (a problem in and of itself), a recent study by the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that more than 75% of students with autism spectrum disorder are also diagnosed with at least one mental health condition (more than 50% are diagnosed with two or more). This statistic comes on the heels of new research suggesting that “autism may be more prevalent among American children than believed.” Learning disabilities are even more common in American kids. And with learning disabilities can also come heightened symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. Whether it be because of difficulties with processing information or emotions, or navigating stigma or bullying, or living through a global pandemic, dealing with co-occurring disabilities without adequate support and resources is an unacceptable reality for too many kids and young adults. 

And the consequences can be both severe. The lifetime employment gap difference between the employment percentage for people with disabilities and people without disabilities was 40.7 percentage points. In rural states such as West Virginia, the rate of employment for people with disabilities was as low as 27.4% as of 2017. And while the government guarantees funding for those who are able to register their disability with the Social Security Administration, monthly payments are well below a living wage (making the extremity of employment gaps between disabled and non-disabled people even more significant). Long-term consequences of disparities for those living with mental and/or physical disabilities might not be top of mind for young people or their parents, but long-term investment by schools, governments, and health care providers plays a critical role in stopping the unequal treatment of people with disabilities.   

At Charlie Health, we believe that one of the key solutions to our country’s growing youth mental health crisis is addressing the systems that exacerbate mental health symptoms in the first place. In practice, this means funding schools and community resource centers (or the like) to be equipped to recognize when students and young people may be struggling. This means hiring more school psychologists, training teachers and staff to be trauma-informed, and much more. If schools across the US were more robustly--and equitably--funded by the government, students struggling with disabilities and/or mental health issues could be better served. 

This would also include parents and other caregivers being informed about their options when school-based care may not be enough. At Charlie Health, we offer the first and only virtual intensive outpatient program for kids, teens, and their families. It is our singular mission to partner with as many providers, hospitals, healthcare companies, school, community organizations, parents, and young people as possible to address the youth mental health crisis head on. This approach must explicitly include partnership with people with disabilities. Those who may be struggling and their families can often speak best to what their needs may be. It’s then our job to tailor a clinical plan of action that will help foster and maintain sustainable healing and growth. 

If you or someone you love may need help with mental health struggles, please contact us. We’re available 24/7 to answer any questions you may have and start your process toward recovery.

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