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Mental Illness as a Disability

January 15, 2012 Natasha Tracy

Is a person with a mental illness a person with a disability? Are people with bipolar disabled? More at Breaking Bipolar blog.

I don't have anything against people with a disability. Why would I? Being disabled means nothing about the individual, it simply indicates their situation. It would be like being against people with siblings. It would just be silly.

Nevertheless, when considering my own bipolar disorder, I bristled against the word "disability." I know; this is hypocritical of me and a double standard. It's OK for someone else to be disabled but not me? I'm embarrassed to even think it.

But bristle I have and think it I (mostly subconsciously) did. The truth is, though, I'm a person with a disability.

I Have a Mental Illness Disability

I had never considered myself disabled. Maybe that's because I went to school, got a degree, had jobs and accomplished (empirically) a lot. There was nothing disabled about that.

But then, one day when I was working at a fancy software company bigger than the town I grew up in, someone suggested I file person with a disability paperwork with human resources.

What? That's a ridiculous notion. Why would I do that?

My Own Misperceptions of Disability

Of course, what I failed to take into consideration is that people with a disability are just people. And lots of them work for fancy software companies. Why wouldn't they? I did. I think I always thought of a person with a disability as a person who couldn't walk or who had some other sort of physical handicap. I never considered that disabilities could be invisible. I didn't realize that my invisible disease was, in fact, a disability.

But let me be clear - mental illnesses are real illnesses and as such can be real disabilities just like anything else. Visibility isn't a prerequisite.

Yes, I Have a Mental Health Disability

But stating you have a mental illness disability is simply stating that you have an illness or handicap that affects how you interact with the world in comparison to everyone else. If you were in a wheelchair, this difference would be obvious. With a mental illness it is less so. But that doesn't mean it's not there.

People with a disability are legally allowed to ask for reasonable accommodation of their illness at work. And people with a mental illness may need that kind of accommodation. So running from the word "disability" is a silly thing to do and in the end, only hurts us.

I've learned that being disabled doesn't change a single thing about me. It doesn't change who I am or who I'm going to be just like it doesn't change how I think of anyone else. It's nonsense to be afraid of a word just because it makes us confront uncomfortable truths. I'm disabled. And it's OK.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2012, January 15). Mental Illness as a Disability, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 22 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2012/01/mental-illness-as-a-disability



Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleTwitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Cheryl
says:
September, 10 2017 at 4:02 am
Mental disorder terminology originated in Ancient Greece. What. It is obsolete although still condoned. What should apply is chemical disorder of the brain which entails disability.
lisa
says:
July, 8 2013 at 4:44 pm
I'm 27 with a 7 year old and a 9 year old. I am a single mom with bi polar disorder. Since I've be of age to work I've wanted to, and almost every job I've had I've failed at due to symptoms of my disorder or side affects of medication treatment...and I believe this is true even before my break down leading to my diagnosis. I was misdiagnosed earlier on add a teenager with chronic depression. I've applied for social security disability 3x and have been denied 3x. My therapist encourages me to reapply each time but I don't have it in me to keep going through the process. the process angers me and I become unstable. The angerand aggression scare me because there its no censor add to who gets it. I don't want my children to ever see me in that light ever again where I lose all control... I'm lost within my mind and there doesn't seem to be helpful help for me.
an
says:
June, 11 2013 at 11:34 pm
As I was recovering, I had a helluva of a time just doing basic things, which was hard on me as I've always been independent. I couldn't even write a resume, though I have written plenty of successful ones (and sometimes not so successful ones) for other people in the past. At one point, I went to a job training center as suggested by my case worker, just to get the motor running. I do remember feeling the way you did and felt some trepidation in participating in this. I have never applied for unemployment, have never taken a disability leave, or anything remotely close to it in my life - I've always had a job since I was 16. I spoke with a social worker, he asked why I haven't worked, and I mentioned in passing that I suffered from depression (thinking it was more acceptable than BP) and was unable to work for a while. After that, everytime he saw me, he would ask in a condescending way, "are you depressed? Is that why you haven't found a job? Have you taken your pills?" Nevermind this was after the housing market crashed and EVERYONE had a hard time finding work, pills or no pills. Needless to say, I was livid and reported him to my case worker who felt BAD because she had been referring people there. The minute people hear any reference to MH - even social workers who really should know better - they automatically dismiss you as hopeless. What an eye opener! I wondered what the hell did he actually learn in school (shockingly, he had a master's degree)? Or what the hell did his sociology program teach him? I'm sure somewhere in there a chapter or two on the disabled in society was slipped in, but maybe he was too busy looking at the hot chick two rows down to absorb it, I don't know...

I've always been committed to meeting my obligations no matter how hard things were going healthwise, and it hasn't always been easy. It was so demoralizing and affected me for a long time thereafter. But this happened when I was newly diagnosed and the idea of acceptance seemed like a pipe dream. It still does for the most part. I've also learned that an advanced degree doesn't mean squat.
an
says:
June, 11 2013 at 11:08 pm
As I was recovering, I had a helluva of a time just getting back on my feet. I couldn't even write a resume, though I have written plenty of successful ones (and sometimes not so successful ones) for other people. At one point, I went to a job training center as suggested by my case worker. I do remember feeling the way you did and felt some trepidation in participating in this. I have never applied for unemployment, have never taken a disability leave, or anything remotely close to it in my life - I've always had a job since I was 16. I spoke with a social worker, he asked why I haven't worked, and I mentioned in passing that I suffered from depression and was unable to work for a while. After that, everytime he saw me, he would ask in a condescending way, "are you depressed? Is that why you haven't found a job? Have you taken your pills?" Needless to say, I was livid and reported him to my case worker who felt BAD because she had been referring people there. The minute people hear any reference to MH - even social workers who should really know better - they automatically dismiss you as hopeless. What an eye opener! I wondered what the hell people actually learned in school? Or what the hell did his social studies program teach? I've always been committed to meeting my obligations no matter how hard things were going healthwise, and it hasn't always been easy. It was so demoralizing and affected me for a long time thereafter.
Sarah
says:
March, 8 2013 at 9:38 pm
Important not to put limitations on yourself.
Terry Krupa
says:
March, 8 2013 at 9:10 am
Hi Natasha, I will contact them for sure. First I wanted to share with you the quote I would use. Also, at this point I am just using your name, but perhpas you would like to be referenced with more inforamtion?

“ I don’t have anything against people with a disability. Why would I? Being disabled means nothing about the individual, it simply indicates their situation. It would be like being against people with siblings. It would just be silly. Nevertheless, when considering my own bipolar disorder, I bristled against the word “disability.” I know; this is hypocritical of me and a double standard. It’s OK for someone else to be disabled but not me? I’m embarrassed to even think it.”
Natasha Tracy
Natasha Tracy
says:
March, 1 2013 at 8:40 am
Hi Terry,

I have no problem with that, of course, as long as it's credited. However, I do not own this content, HealthyPlace does. Please contact them to ensure you have their permission: http://www.healthyplace.com/how-to-contact-us/form/1-healthyplace-contact-form/

Let me know if you have any issues contacting them.

- Natasha
Terry Krupa
says:
March, 1 2013 at 6:30 am
Hello Natasha, many thanks for these comments. I am writing to ask a favour of sorts. I am a professor at Queen's Univeristy in Canada and I work mostly in the area of disability and mental health. This is how I came to your comments. I am writing a chapter for a book that applies models of disability to mental illness. Each chapter of the book opens with a "first person quote" . It just struck me that your opening lines might be a lovely opening for the chapter. I am wondering if you might consent to having your words included in this text? I can provide you with more information, but thought I would throw the idea out first. Looking forward to your response.
shelly rhoades
says:
December, 30 2012 at 2:20 am
wow , this is me , i can't leave my home , but i want too learn ,,,,, i am bi-poaler , i feel stupid ,, people look at me like i am crazy , all i want too do is find a schol that will help BUSY my mind so i don't mind wounder all the time ,,,
Liz
says:
March, 9 2012 at 12:45 pm
Thanks for posting this. I have felt this way for awhile now. Back when I was working full-time, I initiated requesting Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations and in some ways was mistreated (possibly discriminated against) for doing so both by my own supervisor and by human resources. I still don't regret doing it at all. I needed it. In fact, when they told me that they were not able to meet all of the accommodations, I wish I had resigned. Because they weren't, and for many other reasons, I had to leave the position because I had severe depression. I am now on social security disability and am the healthiest (mental health wise) I have ever been. I have also survived thyroid cancer in the meantime! I've noticed that the people surrounding me in my life have a more difficult time viewing me as a disabled person than I do. When I ask for things in my personal life to accommodate me (e.g. not seeing a late movie because I have a bed time) people still sometimes give me a hard time. I think we have a MORE difficult time because our disabilities are invisible. If I were in a wheel chair and said I needed a ramp, my friends would be totally fine with it. Trying to explain that a sleep routine is important for managing mood isn't as easy!
Sharon Locke
says:
February, 16 2012 at 8:45 am
Wow that information is powerful stuff. Makes me think that just because you can't see my disability, that I don't deserve to get accommodations as well for my disability. I feel no longer ashamed and have to stand up for myself and respect myself and take responsibility.
lana_claycamp
says:
February, 8 2012 at 1:08 pm
I have accepted the disability..bipolar and embrace the new life I'm living. There are so many people who are worse than I am but that does not matter to me. I met a man in a wheelchair while shopping and he was apologizing for "getting in people's way". I wanted to correct him and encourage him to just be himself. I didn't say anything though because it might have embarrassed him.
Thank you for your comments. No matter who or what we are, we are human first and deserve all the support we can get from everyone around us. That's just the way I feel but know that some people are afraid to confront the issues they probably have themselves.
Dr Musli Ferati
says:
January, 18 2012 at 4:15 am
To speak openly, mental illness is exhibited as abnormality in daily functioning that embrace personal, professional and social performances of person with mental disorder of any kind, without exception. This abnormality is presented with great or small difficulties in global life activities that we ordinary called as disability. The level of disability determines if concrete life abnormality should be mental disorder or normal variant of mental health state. The distinction between mental illness and mental health condition is gray zone in which one side is mental disorder while in another end is normal mental state. On the other hand, it is important to stress that the feeling of self-satisfying and self-esteem are the crucial criteria to mental health state. However, it is advisable to treat each abnormality in global life functioning by appropriate psychiatric treatment, because the result would be satisfactory.
Madam Bipolar (@SawHole)
says:
January, 17 2012 at 1:53 pm
Damn lost my comment. Needless to say I am disabled by this condition and enabled in other ways.
Natasha Tracy
says:
January, 17 2012 at 1:00 pm
Hi Chrisetta,

Well, choosing to tell an employer about a disability is an individual choice and it's not right in all cases. I suggest not doing it if possible - not because there's anything wrong with you, but because there _might_ be something wrong with them. They may show a prejudice against you if they know. It might be something you need to disclose regardless, but it deserves careful consideration either way.

- Natasha
Natasha Tracy
says:
January, 17 2012 at 12:57 pm
Hi Jeanne,

I think positive reinforcement can help. In other words, if I tell you that you are _not_ less than anyone, perhaps one day you will internalize that truth for yourself.

It's really hard to come from a snazzy job and end up needing to acknowledge your limitations and do something else. But, as you've said, you can create an alternative life for yourself. One with every bit as much meaning as some high-powered job. It's not easy, but you can do it.

- Natasha
Elin Dalstål
says:
January, 17 2012 at 12:57 pm
Something worth mentioning that even people who with with disabilities on a daily basis often lack experience and education dealing with psychiatric disabilities.

At my university we got four student counselors working with disability issues, and when I contacted them they was very helpful and nice but at the same time they admitted they had no training in bipolar disorder. (Even if they where very competent when it came to Adhd, aspergers syndrome, etc) They where very helpful and we managed to work out some accommodations that would fit me.

But when you do seek help for you disabilities be prepared that the people that you meet very likely isn't experts on mental illness.
Natasha Tracy
says:
January, 17 2012 at 12:54 pm
Hi Eric,

Thank-you for your comment. I'm honoured that you've found my writings helpful. That is what I always hope for.

And yes, accepting bipolar can seem like you're accepting being somehow "damaged" or "lesser" but it really is just different - without an attached value judgement. I'm glad you've found that too.

- Natasha
Chrisetta
says:
January, 16 2012 at 1:08 pm
I have had to quit several jobs because of my depression. Marisa made me realize I never told any of those employers of my disease because I thought I wouldn't get hired. I guess it does protect you to some extent. I have an interview tomorrow and will definitely consider offering this information. Kind of feel like I have been doing myself a disservice! Better late than never. Thanks Marisa for the reminder to not be ashamed.
Marisa
says:
January, 16 2012 at 10:53 am
Hi Natasha.

I've always felt that it isn't a weakness to 'label' oneself in such a way, and it can be a very positive thing as it allows yourself protections that would cause life to be a huge struggle otherwise without them.

I've always embraced having a disability in my bipolar. Here in the UK, we are protected under the Disability Discrimination Act for many MH conditions, and me accepting that I was disabled meant that I was covering myself. It meant that my employer had to be very careful when I took extended sick leave due to my condition. It also challenges other people's preconceptions when I tell them I am disabled, as you can't 'see' that I have a problem physically, and I appear to be 'normal' on the outside, yet the fact that I am open and unashamed of the label.

Wilda - often so many people with bipolar are much more than 'the norm'. Many of my idols and heros are people who have bipolar. I find that the upside is that I am a very, very creative person, particularly in mania or hypomania, and a lot of people envy that. I think that to find the positives in it and will help one accept the whole package. Looks like you're doing that too :)
Jeanne M.
says:
January, 16 2012 at 6:36 am
Serendipity. As I sit here at home, all the while remembering and feeling I "should" be at my (former) management job within a community mental health center, I just sensed relief. Relief, coupled with a host of emotions, mostly harsh toward myself. Disabled. Still I try to 'wrap my head around it' that it finally 'got me', too. Even with decades of rising above it, or so I thought, via healthy lifestyle and persistent pursuit of accomplishments, to try to prove to myself I was not impaired nor disabled. But, the check each month reminds me of such. Perhaps/hopefully, I will read enough posts, create an alternative life, healthy life that is, that I will no longer feel 'less than me' anymore. Thank you for your posts and your article.
Tammy
says:
January, 15 2012 at 6:11 pm
Thank you for your posting great reading. I am 41 and strongly suspect I am and have been bipolar for many years. The world truly does not understand and that is just the way it is. I thank God for the ones who actually do understand and love us for who we are.
Eric
says:
January, 15 2012 at 3:38 pm
Hello Natasha:

Thank you for this post, the message is a powerful one that resonates very deeply with me (and many others I suspect). Wilda Egger's post above very accurately describes the primary motivator feeding my denial for so many years: The perception/belief that I would be 'less than' the 'normal' people in this world if I accepted that I was Bipolar. My acceptance has been a slow and emotionally painful process but I am finally there... I now understand that I am different in some ways and that's OK because everyone is different on some level. I also know/believe that 'normal' is simply another label and it's generally a moving target. I no longer fret over whether or not I am meeting those norms, only that I am as healthy as possible, still able to work, and treating people well.

I only read two of the many BP bloggers out there Natasha and I rarely comment but... Your blogs have made a difference in my life and I am grateful. I have read your posts and smiled, cried, learned, and not felt alone. I have also shared some of your posts with my parents in an effort to help them understand (they do and are my greatest support). Thank you for your work and please know that so many of us out here appreciate you.

Eric R
wilda egger
says:
January, 15 2012 at 12:08 pm
"But stating you have a disability is simply stating that you have an illness or handicap that affects how you interact with the world in comparison to everyone else." That is such a simple definition, Natasha. Thank you. I often connect my bipolar disability with "less than"-less than I used to be, less than other people are. I am not less than. I just am. I am intelligent, creative,compassionate, resourceful, tenacious, confused, fearful, etc. I am a human being who happens to have a bipolar disorder-a disability. And I don't have to keep saying I'm sorry for it. None of us do.
Natasha Tracy
says:
January, 15 2012 at 12:03 pm
Sally,

Thanks.

The process doesn't have to be fast, I reckon. I do think it's important to think about it though, challenge our own internal prejudices and mechanisms. Because there may come a time when you need the word.

- Natasha
Sally
says:
January, 15 2012 at 11:51 am
Wow....that's powerful stuff, however I am having trouble accepting the "label" I have already and feel uncomfortable adding another one. My daughter is classed as disabled not physically mind, that has taken me years to accept and I expect mine will too.

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