Nearly six years ago I began having profound thoughts of suicide and it was, by far, the most frightening thing I’d ever experienced.
Though so much time has passed, I can still vividly remember how I felt at the prospect of ending my own life.
Thankfully, through determination, will, courage and support, I have been able to rise from those darkest of times and proceed along a journey to recovery.
But my experience taught me that the disabled community is at a disadvantage when trying to access mental health services. This is despite the fact having a disability means you are more likely to need this kind of support.
I have a genetic condition called LCA (Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis). LCA renders me totally blind in both eyes, with no perception of light or dark, no shapes, shadows or colour – nothing. But aside from this, I am a perfectly normal person.
When I looked into the lack of mental health support further, I was unable to find any specific research into why this is.
According to a British Medical Journal survey, long wait times for healthcare is the biggest obstacle faced by one in four people living with a severe disability.
For me, the experience differed slightly. When visiting my NHS GP I struggled to convey exactly how I was feeling, and it appeared to me that I was seen to be faking it, despite showing obvious signs of distress and scoring high on a PHQ-9 test, a questionnaire designed to quickly assess the severity of depression.
Years later I began reaching out to private therapists. Having no idea where to start, I ventured into an online counselling directory and picked a profile at random. I repeated this process eight times, but each time was rejected.
In every case the rejection related to the disability. I didn’t mention it in my initial email or phone call. In most cases I would leave it until we were making arrangements to meet for a first consultation; in others, I would drop it casually into a phone conversation.
The reactions varied. Some were surprised, others angry at being misled, others became ambivalent.
Most were courteous enough to state their uncertainty in handling the disability as a reason, yet were unwilling to proceed anyway despite assurances that we could work together.
Some were patronising, downright rude, or suddenly had no space available, while one simply hung up without another word.
For me, things worked out OK. I eventually found a therapist. She was kind, caring, trustworthy and smart. A great listener, but honest and willing to challenge my point of view. Perceptive and inquisitive but never patronising.
We must find ways to educate and spread awareness in ways that showcase our ability rather than our inability, and stop using campaigns and press to highlight our differences as disabled people rather than our similarities as humans.
My therapist took my disability in her stride without batting an eyelid. Few could navigate a blind person up a wonky old staircase without a bruised shin or two on their first attempt, but she did so expertly like she’d done so a hundred times.
If anything, those other therapists did me a favour. But others in similar positions might not be so lucky.
I think about a few years prior when I first began looking for a therapist, but never found the courage to make contact. Though to do so may have hastened my recovery, I’m thankful that I didn’t as I’m in no doubt that to face such rejection at that time may well have been the final straw.
But I feel no animosity towards any of them. I do not intend to highlight their rejection in a negative way. It is my hope that by sharing my story, I can highlight the lack of awareness in society that is at the root of this issue.
The Equality Act states that healthcare providers must make ‘reasonable adjustments’, removing barriers disabled people face when accessing their services unless it’s unreasonable to do so.
Therefore, being given an inadequate consultation because of prejudice or lack of awareness surrounding your disability is direct discrimination under the Equality Act.
‘Disabled people should be able to have equal access to mental health professionals, whether they’re accessing care through the NHS or privately,’ Ceri Smith, policy and campaigns manager at disability equality charity Scope has said on the issue.
‘We need to ensure mental health practitioners are fully trained to support disabled patients, ensuring a fair and equal service is available to them at such a crucial time. This will have long term, beneficial effects for all concerned.’
I strongly believe that punitive action is to be avoided where possible, as it only serves to encourage ill feeling and hostility.
We must instead find ways to educate and spread awareness in ways that showcase our ability rather than our inability, and stop using campaigns and press to highlight our differences as disabled people rather than our similarities as humans.
Rather than being quick to punish misunderstanding, we must offer guidance to challenge misguidance.
Only then will we find true acceptance. And only then can we begin to tackle the issues we still face.
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