In the United States, 1 in 4 adults has a disability. December 3rd is the International Day of Disability this year, a day to celebrate the accomplishments of people with disabilities worldwide. It is also a day to raise awareness about invisible disabilities. Invisible disabilities are conditions others often cannot see, such as mental health disorders, chronic pain, and learning disabilities.

What are invisible disabilities?

Most people think of disabilities as visible physical impairments when, in reality, many disabilities are not outwardly apparent. An invisible disability is any physical, mental, or neurological ailment that can’t be seen from the outside but limits or interferes with a person’s movements, senses, or activities. Invisible or “hidden” disabilities can be just as debilitating as physical disabilities, but they often go unnoticed or unsupported. This can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

There are many different types of invisible disabilities, but the most common ones are:

  • Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, personality disorders

  • Autism

  • Visual impairments

  • Hearing loss

  • Sensory processing disorders

  • cognitive impairments such as dementia, learning disabilities, or traumatic brain injury

  • Non-visible health issues like chronic pain, diabetes, fatigue, or incontinence.

Since every case is unique, people with invisible disabilities will need different types and levels of support.

How do invisible disabilities affect mental health?

People with hidden disabilities are often not given the accommodations they need to thrive. This can lead to feelings of frustration, anger, and helplessness. Invisible disabilities can also make it hard to participate in activities that are important for mental health, such as socializing, exercising, and working. This can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.

How to support people with invisible disabilities

It is important to be aware of the mental health impact of invisible disabilities. If you know someone with an invisible disability, offer your support and understanding. Additionally, raising awareness about invisible disabilities can help to break down the stigma around mental health and encourage people to seek support.

The connection between physical disabilities and mental health

Poor mental health and mental illness can have a profound negative effect on the lives of those with disabilities. Conversely, living with a physical disability can increase the risk of developing mental health problems. In fact, studies have shown that people with disabilities are more likely to experience mental health problems than those without disabilities.

People with disabilities often face physical, social, and economic barriers that can negatively impact their mental health. There is also often a lack of understanding within the medical community on how to screen and treat the mental health of people who may be more severely disabled and can’t always verbalize or express what they are feeling. A study exploring the relationship between physical disability and depression found that female subjects diagnosed with any disability presented with higher levels of depression.

Disabled people are at higher risk of developing mental health issues

There are many reasons for this increased risk. People with disabilities often face discrimination, social isolation, and limited access to mental health services. They may also experience trauma related to their disability, such as abuse or violence. Disabled individuals suffer from abuse and neglect more frequently than those who don’t have disabilities. This makes them more susceptible to developing mental disorders that further restrict their ability to participate in day-to-day activities.

Bullying is also a common experience for disabled people, especially those with noticeable disabilities or differences. The effects of bullying over a long period can lead to serious mental health problems. The lack of a robust support system is another factor that can contribute to the development of mental health issues in disabled people. Family members and friends may not be able to offer the level of support needed, or they may not be aware of the unique challenges faced by their loved ones.

There is a lot of evidence that people with disabilities are more likely to have suicidal ideation or complete suicide. But it is not usually the disability itself that causes these thoughts. Usually, it is the discrimination and social problems that disabled people face every day that leads to dangerous depression.

Discrimination and ableism affect mental health

Ableism is the discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities, believing that disabled individuals are inferior. Disabled people often experience both physical and mental hardships, from a scarcity of accessible public places and transportation to inflexible work options.

People presuming competence or being treated like a child because they are in a wheelchair or have some other type of visible physical difference or disability is another issue that disabled people have to deal with. Some people tend to speak to adults with disabilities in patronizing tones or to speak to the person’s companion or attendant rather than to the person themself.

Another way that ableism manifests itself is with “inspiration porn.” The term “inspiration porn” was coined by disability activist Stella Young in a viral TED talk. It refers to how disabled people are often objectified for the benefit of others.

“Inspiration porn” is a type of media where disabled people are either portrayed as inspirational or objects of pity. You may have seen memes on social media or read stories about a non-disabled person describing disabled people as “admirable” or “courageous” or using someone with a disability to motivate others. The truth is that disabled people want to be treated like everyone else. They don’t want to be used by others to feel better about themselves.

What you can do to support the mental health of people with disabilities

If you know someone with a disability, be an ally. The best way to help disabled people is to listen and act on their needs. Speak up if you see them being mistreated or discriminated against. Be an advocate for accessible spaces and accommodations. They might feel alone, frustrated, angry, or helpless and have difficulty communicating those feelings effectively. Many adverse behaviors from people with cognitive disabilities stem from frustration from being unable to express themselves or not being understood.

It is important to be aware of this and to offer support if you know someone with one of these disabilities. Educate yourself and others about ableism and ways to challenge it. Support organizations that work to improve the lives of people with disabilities. Listen to them and validate their experiences. Offer to help with practical tasks or be a listening ear when needed. Educate yourself about their condition and how it affects them.

And finally, remember that disabled people are just people – they want the same things you do in life. So let’s start treating them like it. International Day of Disability is an important day to celebrate the achievements of people with disabilities and to raise awareness about invisible disabilities. By talking about these conditions, we can help to break down the stigma around mental health and encourage people to seek support. With understanding and support, we can create a world that is inclusive of all.

If you know someone with a physical, developmental, or intellectual disability, there are some things you can do to support their mental health. One of the most important ways you can support them is by encouraging them to seek professional help if they are struggling.

Serene Health offers a wide variety of behavioral health and mental health services. We also have late evening and weekend appointments available through our Telehealth platform so you can speak to a therapist online from the comfort of your home. Call us at 844-737-3638 or visit to schedule an appointment.