Mental Health and Physical Health: The Connection for People with Disabilities

It’s an unfortunate fact that disability often comes with increased mental health challenges. In fact, adults with disabilities report mental distress at rates up to five times that of adults without disabilities.  

So what’s the cause of this troubling statistic, and what can be done to improve it?

What do we Mean by ‘Disability’?

Before exploring the connection between disability and mental health, it’s important to explain what we mean by the term ‘disability’. 

In this context, we point to what’s covered by the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). To be eligible for NDIS funding, the disease or medical condition must cause permanent impairment (either physical, intellectual, cognitive, neurological, visual, hearing or psychosocial). 

This includes everything from emphysema to autism spectrum disorder to certain diabetes complications. Though there are many people with disabilities who fall outside this scope, the focus of this article is on those whose lives are impacted in a significant and often untreatable way. Things like ageing-related disease or ADHD, for example, are not referred to specifically in this instance despite their potential for debilitation. 

Disability and Health

On the surface it may seem like the connection between mental health issues and disability is obvious (particularly in the case of psychosocial disability). The truth is, however, that it’s a complex and multi-faceted relationship. 

Among the myriad of factors at play is poor physical health. This was cited on The Centre for Disease Control website, which states: “People with disabilities are less likely to engage in regular moderate physical activity than people without disabilities, yet they have similar needs to promote their health and prevent unnecessary disease”. 

Compounding this are the detrimental eating and smoking habits of many in this community. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 47% of people with disability do not eat enough fruit and vegetables (compared to 41% of people without disability). 18% also smoke cigarettes daily – 6% more than the general Australian population.

As a result of this lifestyle, the cohort is 66% more likely to develop preventable chronic conditions such obesity and type 2 diabetes. 

Reasons for Poor Physical Health Amongst Disabled People

The unhealthy trends observed amongst those living with a disability likely stem from the disadvantages they face daily, rather than a lack of interest in maintaining wellbeing. 

One such disadvantage lies in accessibility. Depending on the disability, getting to and from the gym, pool, beach, park or other recreational area can be difficult or impossible. Even when they are accessible, most sites lack the specific facilities or equipment to cater to users of such needs. 

Another is social isolation. Many disabled people feel as though their condition excludes them from participating in sports and healthy activity with loved ones. This lack of support and inclusion was highlighted in a 2020 paper by The Melbourne Disability Institute, which published the following comment from a survey respondent: “[Its] Very simple: the only people I can visit are other physically disabled people who live in accessible homes. This means I can’t visit family and friends, who stop inviting me to their homes and often end up in lack of inclusion in most social activities outside the home. If I’m out of sight, I’m out of mind.” Without a close support network in place, maintaining healthy habits and motivation is a much more difficult prospect.

Lastly, cooking nutritious meals is often challenging for those with disabilities. Many kitchens simply aren’t designed for this group, and recipes that involve chopping, stirring, opening jars and moving items can take far greater energy for someone with limited mobility or a chronic illness. When healthy choices are seen as too difficult, it can be easy to opt for processed, ready-made food. 

The Link Between Physical and Mental Health

So what does physical health have to do with the mental health of people living with disability?

Well, the link between the two has been well established for all populations. People who regularly exercise have shown time and time again to be at reduced risk of developing depressive or anxiety disorders. They’re typically also calmer, with better sleep and improved mental clarity. 

The Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports conducted a large-scale review specifically to determine the mental health outcomes of exercise amongst individuals with physical disabilities. They found that, among other benefits, it led to significant gains in self-esteem, empowerment, and feelings of control over their life.

Studies examining people with learning disabilities and functional disabilities have produced similar results. They commonly find that involvement in physical activity leads to better quality of life, increased confidence, and minimised symptoms of depression. These benefits may be even greater when the subjects’ chosen caregiver is involved, as it affords them access to activities they enjoy the most. This in turn fosters a more positive perception of exercise. 

How To Improve Physical and Mental Health For NDIS Participants

Given the above, it’s clear that the mental health and physical health of people with disabilities is intrinsically linked. Maintaining a suitable diet and undertaking regular exercise should therefore be of utmost importance to those in this community. 

NDIS participants on the Gold Coast can find the support they need to thrive both mentally and physically at Urzi Psychology. Whether the aim is to participate in local sports, develop effective communication skills, or just about anything else, our network of caring support workers strive to remove the barriers that prevent people with a disability from achieving their goals. 

We promote physical fitness by offering access to various recreational and social activities, while also encouraging healthy relationships with food.

Our plant based cooking program, for example, allows participants to sharpen their culinary skills, socialise with others, and discover the influence nutrition has on broader wellbeing. 

If you’re interested in NDIS support for physical and mental health, peruse our website or reach out to the friendly team at Urzi Psychology