This is a guest post by Julia Alsop for Disability History Month.
As it’s Disability History Month, I wanted to talk about my experiences as a student dealing with an invisible disability that people don’t always expect to be a ‘disability’: my mental health condition. In fact, for people in their 20s, the most common category of disability, more widespread than physical, social or cognitive disabilities, is a mental health diagnosis.
Of course, mental health conditions vary quite a lot, even between those with the same diagnosis. However, like any other disability, dealing with mental health can be quite a time-consuming and unavoidable part of your daily life. It can affect your ability to function while studying, working and socialising, and you might rely on medical intervention or support regularly. Even if you’re not actively dealing with an episode of mental ill health, the maintenance of your wellness and the worry of relapsing can affect how you live your life.
A lot of people with a mental health condition don’t adopt the identity of disability, despite the fact it can significantly impact your day to day living. There are a large number of multifaceted reasons for this (which really deserve a whole article dedicated to it). There is no doubt that there is a lot of stigma and difficulties in social understandings of physical disabilities (including lots of invisible, chronic conditions). But at the same time, there’s also been a long period of time of breaking down the taboo of having mental health difficulties and it being considered a ‘valid’ illness by the wider population. I think that perhaps a lot of the stigma against people with mental health conditions adopting the identity of ‘disability’ is largely down to not wanting your illness to be a part of your identity, due to the stigma, and also the internalised thoughts that perhaps having a mental health condition doesn’t qualify you as being ill enough to consider yourself as disabled.
I can understand not wanting to be defined by your health condition - I personally prefer the nuance of being a person who has bipolar disorder, rather than a bipolar person for this reason - but I can’t help but feel that, even unintentionally, your body and your health do end up a part of your identity. Equally, to truly dismiss something that may have a big effect on your life as not being at least a ~part~ of your identity, is perhaps to fall into the stigmatised mindset that there is something innately shameful about it. I have bipolar disorder, and although it is a very minimal aspect of my identity, I have had experiences and can empathise with some other people, because I have that condition. So, without intention, it is a part of my identity.
Equally, although mental health problems are not something you can know when you see a person, they can affect someone’s life regularly even if it’s not something happening constantly. With my bipolar disorder, I can have months or even years of being well and stable, which in many people’s minds might negate the concept of disability. However, in those periods of wellness, I am always aware of my level of wellbeing - I am wary of my sleep patterns and lifestyle habits, I get moments of worry when I’m tired or particularly happy as to whether that’s normal or whether I’m unwell, and I have a small supply of medication to help me if I think maybe I might be becoming ill. And, for all I know, I could have another episode at any time which really could influence my day to day life. Maintenance of a mental health condition, no matter how small, can be important and affect your day to day living. This is quite a big consideration, and sometimes a burden, when I’m also facing a challenging degree.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not trying to enforce that every person with a mental health diagnosis should have to claim identity as disabled, but more to encourage more people to be okay with the idea of taking it, and with using it to find communities and support. My main concerns lie with the fact that often, by not recognising that a mental health diagnosis can be a disability, people don’t know or feel that they can access certain forms of support, and equally, it doesn’t help in developing wider understanding into mental health and the very holistic effects it can have on your life. As a personal anecdote, I cannot even count on my fingers that number of fellow students that I have made aware of the fact that, with a mental health diagnosis, they would be eligible to apply for Disabled Student’s Allowance and access the support that that may bring. Fundamentally, the reason that mental health is included within the definition of disability is because mental health problems, whether acute or chronic, can have long term consequences on your life in its entirety, whether through your need to take medication long term, effects on your lifestyle or body, or the effort to try to maintain your wellbeing.
In my experience, when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I felt quite isolated in a lot of ways: there didn’t seem to be other people dealing with the same treatments as I was, or navigating how to access help. One of the most reassuring and affirming groups in helping me process my illness, get to know how services worked, and get to know what support I was entitled to, was the disability community. I actually initially became involved in disability educating and campaigning through my mental health diagnoses primarily, and definitely became much better within myself when I could discuss what it’s like to deal with a long term health condition with other people.
I suppose the main conclusion in this argument is to encourage you, whether you have a mental health condition or not, to understand the ways in which it can have a massive impact on your life quite generally - beyond how you feel or your health at one individual time. Coordinating and dealing with your mental health conditions in the long run can be difficult and time-consuming even if your wellbeing and health is good and stable at that time. Equally, with an invisible disability, including mental health conditions, it is impossible to know exactly what an individual is experiencing at any time - whether wellness, or an episode/flare up, and it’s important to be compassionate towards their efforts to be maintaining their wellbeing and health in the long term.