Opinion: Too often, Utah neglects the mental health needs of individuals with disabilities

Individuals with disabilities experience higher rates of depression than people without disabilities in Utah.

Utah is cited as one of the top five worst states for mental health. While the conversation around mental health has commonly focused on school-based issues, LGTBQ+ youth and even adults following the COVID-19 pandemic, there continues to be a lack of concerted state-wide attention for one group: individuals with disabilities.

According to a report of publicly available state data, individuals with disabilities experience higher rates of depression than people without disabilities in Utah. In fact, among a list of 13 common chronic health conditions that included conditions like arthritis, heart disease and diabetes, depression was the second leading condition experienced by individuals with disabilities in Utah. Unfortunately, these results mirror what is known across the nation: Individuals with disabilities commonly experience mental health concerns like depression and anxiety, but often experience difficulties in accessing care.

It is true that Utah has made strides over the past five years in regards to mental health. Collaborations and partnerships that lead to organizations like the Huntsman Mental Health Institute can truly increase access to care for individuals who desperately need it. Legislation that expands who can provide care and provides funding to services that are desperately underfunded helps, too.

This alone, however, isn’t enough. We could increase service providers by nearly double and there still would not be an adequate amount of providers to meet the need. It is even more dire when considering that these services are commonly designed in ways that are inaccessible to individuals with disabilities, meaning they are often ineffective and directly harmful at worst.

As Utahns, we need to do more to directly support the mental health of individuals with disabilities. The Beehive State is built on helping each other and, in this vein, each of us can do more to make our communities more inclusive. So where can we start?

Have the conversation

First, we need to start by being open and honest with one another. Pain is real, it is a part of life and it isn’t going away. Much of the conversation surrounding mental health concerns seems to focus on an unattainable goal of eradicating these concerns. It is almost as if we were to just find the right pill, the right circumstance or the right solution, we could finally “solve the problem for good.” Don’t get me wrong — each of these things can help improve someone’s life — but pain will always find a way to come back. We would be better served if we learned to work with this pain, rather than making it the enemy.

In fact, by using this “cure-based” approach that is so often advanced in the medical field, we can unintentionally send the message that someone needs “fixed” or that the way they are is “wrong.” This isn’t new. For centuries, individuals with disabilities, including individuals with mental health concerns, have been told they are a problem, ostracized from society and then told there is no place for them. There are countless stories of how harmful this is and how it leads to worsening mental health, isolation and risk for suicide. By shifting away from trying to “fix” individuals with disabilities experiencing mental health concerns, we might instead make enough space for their experiences and, in doing so, help create purpose that promotes wellbeing.

Create connection

Second, we need to be more willing to support one another in both the easy and hard ways. It can be as easy as saying hello to someone, inviting someone with a disability to be included in an event and genuinely connecting with someone who is different from you. It can also be as hard as taking time out of your day to support someone in distress, help them find resources and follow-up with them about how these efforts are helping. Each effort matters, is needed and can make a lasting difference.

Focus on the process

Lastly, we need to move past trying to obtain an outcome (e.g., cure all depression) and instead engage with an ongoing process that brings us purpose. I would bet that almost all of you reading this has experienced what I mean; when you shift from trying to obtain a goal (e.g., I’m going to win the basketball game) to a process (e.g., I’m going to work on my jump shot) you find both more purpose in the process and you increase your odds of winning. Mental health tends to work the same; let’s focus on the process of finding purpose and as a result our mental health is likely to improve.

As Utahns, we are all a part of the solution that we keep looking for in terms of mental health. By striving to create communities that are consistent, warm and responsive and inclusive of all, we can create more purpose that promotes mental health.

(Photo courtesy of Ty B. Aller) Ty B. Aller

Ty B. Aller, PhD, LMFT, is a researcher working at Utah State’s Institute for Disability Research, Policy, and Practice.

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