Coping With Depression and Disability

Disability is defined as a physical or mental condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities.

As with any significant loss, entering the world of disability requires mental adjustment. When the magnitude of the adjustment surpasses the social, emotional, and cognitive resources of the individual, depression can set in, further complicating disability.

Read on to learn the warning signs of clinical depression and discover resources for getting help.

Disabled man in bed, out of reach of wheelchair
Walter Zerla / Blend Images / Getty Images 

Recently Disabled

For the recently disabled, depression is very common. They have gone from being able-bodied to perhaps being someone who has to depend on assistance from others. They may be struggling with their memories of being able-bodied and trying to accept their current physical or mental limitations.

Acknowledging a new disability isn’t always easy; for many, it can take years to fully accept that they are disabled and can no longer do some, or many, of the things they once enjoyed doing. It is normal for them to feel sad or angry as they are grieving the loss of their former life.

Disabled at Birth

Some individuals are disabled at birth. They may have a disability that was a result of issues during gestation or childbirth, or a genetic problem as the cause of their disability. 

While some may argue that being disabled from birth somehow makes things easier, such as developing coping mechanisms from an early age, others do not share the same view. Those who are disabled at an early age may spend years struggling to find acceptance with their peers and teachers, have difficulty forming new relationships, and have trouble transitioning to adulthood and finally landing a job.

Signs of Depression

Many individuals have wonderful support systems in place, such as friends and family who help them navigate the rough times. Just as many, however, lack the support systems they need, especially if they are newly disabled living in an able-bodied world.

It is not unusual to occasionally have a “why me?” moment when facing difficulties in life, especially when a disability seems to be causing the difficulty. However, when an individual is feeling like the world is against them all the time, they may be experiencing clinical depression, not merely “the blues.”

The National Institute of Mental Health reports if any of the following symptoms are experienced for most of the day, almost every day, for at least two weeks, they could be suffering from clinical depression:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness, or pessimism
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Moving or talking more slowly
  • Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment

Getting Help

Often, disabled people have their disability treated, but they don’t have their emotional or spiritual needs addressed.

Medical doctors are usually not counselors, and therefore may not be aware that their patient is experiencing an emotional problem. For this reason, patients (who are able to) need to be their own advocates. This means speaking up and letting a primary care physician or specialist know you’re feeling sad or depressed and that you need someone to talk to.

Caregivers also need to be aware of the disabled person’s emotional needs and be on the lookout for the warning signs of depression. A caregiver may be the first line of defense in helping a person suffering quietly from depression.

It is normal to feel sad or even depressed for a few days over events in our lives, but sadness or depression that lasts longer than a few days requires assistance from a primary care physician or certified counselor.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, call your local suicide hotline immediately or dial 988 to contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or the deaf hotline using your preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988. Alternatively, seek help at a local hospital’s emergency room right away.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Noh JW, Kwon YD, Park J, Oh IH, Kim J. Relationship between Physical Disability and Depression by Gender: A Panel Regression ModelPLoS One. 2016;11(11):e0166238. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0166238

  2. The National Institute of Mental Health. Depression.

By Charlotte Gerber
Charlotte Gerber is a disability writer and advocate. She has made a career of educating the public about various diseases and disabilities.