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How Pandemic Impacted Mental Health of People with Disabilities?

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Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people with disabilities are facing a higher risk of mental health problems. We do understand the cause of this problem and work on improving their overall health. 

Introduction: Research shows people with disabilities are at risk for mental health problems

The emerging coronavirus research depicts that this pandemic has augmented psychological distress in both high-risk groups and the general population. Some behaviors, like social distancing and physical distancing, are worsening the mental health conditions of disabled people. 

Research on the impact of mass trauma (e.g., flu outbreaks, natural disasters) shows that this pandemic is harmful to the mental health of disabled populations who already have minimum access to supportive social networks and socioeconomic resources.  

There are some innovative challenges and stressors that may worsen the mental health of disabled people during the COVID-19 situation. As per research on previous pandemics, disabled people find it difficult to access emergency medical supplies. It becomes more challenging when resources become scarce.

Certain people with disabilities have also reported increased levels of social isolation compared to their non-disabled counterparts. They are likely to experience sad and intensified feelings of sadness and loneliness due to physical distancing measures. 

With social isolation, there are also increased chances of dementia, heart disease, and other health conditions, as per the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Even the policies around medical care rationing may increase discriminatory attitudes towards people with disabilities – especially during a crisis. It can certainly worsen anxiety about requiring medical care.  

With the increasing spread of coronavirus, data is vital to inform proper public health response. Although adequate research on the impact of COVID-19 on the disabled community is not available yet, various studies are in the planning phase. The data required for the infection rates, hospitalizations, outcomes, and deaths due to age, disability, income, and race, are among various other factors. So, we need to understand the COVID-19 impact on various vulnerable groups. 

Elderly and people with disabilities at higher risk – 

Elderly people, as well as disabled people, are at higher risk of COVID-19 outbreak because of social and clinical reasons. Some of these reasons are weaker immunity or some other underlying health conditions. Even distancing from families and friends can lead to mental health issues among the disabled and elderly. According to health experts, people in their 60s or more are likely to be affected by SARS‐CoV‐2. They may develop a life-threatening condition even if they’re in good health. 

Social distancing because of the COVID-19 pandemic may harm the mental health of disabled individuals and the elderly. The physical isolation at home along with family members may result in serious health conditions for disabled and elderly people. It may lead to distress and anxiety. 

Nonetheless, something very simple such as a phone call at the time of the pandemic may help console elderly and disabled people. COVID-19 may even result in higher anxiety, stress, and depression among the elderly who are already dealing with mental health conditions. 

Family members can witness the given changes in the behavior of the elderly: 

  • Emotional outbursts
  • Change in eating and sleeping habits
  • Shouting and irritating behavior

The WHO also suggests that every family member must keep checking on the elderly in their families and at nursing homes. Even younger family members need to take some time to talk to older family members and be more involved with their routine lives whenever possible. 

A triple jeopardy

Disabled people are differently affected by the coronavirus pandemic. It is because of three major factors – reduced access to routine rehabilitation and health care, increased risk of bad outcomes from the disease, and the negative social impact of efforts for mitigating the coronavirus pandemic.  

According to WHO’s World Report on Disability and disability care, around 10 years ago, it stated that disabled people have more chances of being poorer, older, female, and experiencing comorbidities. Deprivation, comorbidities, and older age are even associated with a higher risk of various outcomes coming from COVID-19. The risk of death due to COVID-19 was 3.1 times higher for males with disabilities. And, it was 3.5 higher for females with disabilities than both males and females without disabilities. People with disabilities in the congregated residential environment had more risk of death due to COVID-19 than people with no disabilities. Even in household settings, people with disabilities are at higher risk of death due to COVID-19.

It’s okay not to feel okay: 

Everyone feels and reacts differently to distinct and stressful situations. The way you respond to stressful situations, like the COVID-19 pandemic, depends on your support systems (including friends and family), your background, your community, your health and emotional background, and various other factors. 

People with disabilities often respond strongly to any stress caused by a crisis, especially if they are at higher risk of serious illness due to COVID-19. It is perfectly normal for them to “not feel okay”. However, with the right support system, there are chances to improve their mental health condition.

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