Mental Illness in a Wheelchair

Coping with Mental Illness in a Wheelchair

Americans living with physical disabilities face a number of significant challenges that can impact their quality of life. For many, physical disability and mental health go hand-in-hand. As you take care of your physical needs, it can be all too easy to neglect your mental health issues – and vice versa moreover, mental illness in a wheelchair can be super difficult for the patients.

Whether you were born with a disability or experienced the onset of a disability due to injury or illness later in life, can affect how you perceive your disability and greatly impact your mental health. In turn, how well you cope with mental illness in a wheelchair and support a better quality of life.

Physical Disabilities

A recent study found that adults with disabilities report experiencing more mental distress than those without disabilities. In 2018, an estimated 17.4 million (32.9%) adults with disabilities experienced frequent mental distress, defined as 14 or more reported mentally unhealthy days in the past 30 days.

Frequent mental health distress is associated with compounded mental disorders, poor health behaviors, increased use of health services, chronic disease, and limitations in daily life.

Physical Disability and Covid-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic, isolation, disconnect, disrupted routines, and diminished health services greatly impacted the lives and mental well-being of people with disabilities.

woman standing against a window

Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations. How you respond to stressful situations, such as the COVID-19 lockdown situations, can depend on your background, your support systems (e.g. family or friends), your financial situation, your health and emotional background, the community you live in, and many other factors.

People with disabilities or developmental delays may respond strongly to the stress of a crisis, particularly if they are also at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19 (for example, older people and people of any age with certain underlying medical conditions).

Mental Health as a Chronic Illness

Disability is defined by the Social Security Administration as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months”.

While it seems that definition would cover most disabilities, many who are disabled due to an illness feel that this definition only applies to physical disability and does not cover them.

The dictionary definition of disability is “the condition of being unable to perform as a consequence of physical or mental unfitness”, which more completely encompasses both mental and physical disability.

The largest problem those with long-lasting illness seem to have with the Social Security Administration’s definition of disability is that it is set up to take care of those with a ‘static’, unchanging disability, such as blindness, mental retardation, learning disabilities, and those with serious disabilities, such as being a quadriplegic.

Those with continued mental illness are disabled, yet it is not always static in the same way. Some days they can work, while other days they may need help to do things differently, and there is no way to predict when they will be healthy or sick.

Chronic mental illness is a disability that oftentimes prevents one from working, performing normal daily tasks, and socializing – albeit not one that is static and unchanging.

The Ever-Changing Disability

old woman on a wheelchair

This ‘ever-changing’ form of disability poses problems within the system. Once a person has obtained disability benefits, they are unable to work at all.

If they do decide to try and exhaust the nine-month trial period of work and then continue to perform ‘substantial gainful employment, they lose their benefits. For those with chronic mental illness, it is not this cut and dry.

They may be able to work easily for months or years, only to be struck with symptoms of their illness and be down and out for weeks. While there is a 36-month extension period that allows them to obtain benefits when they need to, three years can quickly pass, leaving them without benefits after the extension period.

Some Common Mental Health Issues

Surveys show that people with disabilities often experience a sense of social isolation and loneliness, which can also lead to a focus on chronic negative thoughts, depression, anxiety, PTSD, addictions, and a plethora of other mental health issues. Inaccessible environments and misunderstanding from non-disabled individuals can sometimes lead to feeling left out or even shunned.

Recent research links loneliness to a number of other health concerns, including a greater risk for premature death and suicide, dementia and heart disease, as well as decreased immunity. The mental and physical impact of loneliness and isolation can be tremendous in itself.

Seek Professional Advice

Common advice to people with disabilities to “stay positive” may be given with good intentions but doesn’t adequately address the point of a person’s new reality or new disability.

Depression and other mental health conditions go way beyond just struggling or feeling sad, in a way that no amount of deep breaths and self-help may be able to address. Taking care to obtain a professional diagnosis and properly manage health is necessary to feel good and support the best quality of life. Making an appointment with a licensed counselor or therapist is always a great place to start the journey to improved mental health!

Maintaining A Positive Mental Outlook

Mentally accepting a new disability

accepting a new disability

Before you can develop acceptance for your disability, you first need to grieve. You’ve suffered a major loss for both yourself and the people living in your world. Not just the loss of your healthy, unlimited body, but likely the addition of some new symptoms, pain, and treatment. This is a difficult time and it is perfectly natural to struggle to accept the loss of at least some of your plans for the future.

Don’t try to ignore or suppress your feelings. It’s only human to want to avoid pain, but just like you won’t get over an injury by ignoring it, you can’t work through grief without allowing yourself to feel it and actively deal with it. Allow yourself to fully experience your feelings without judgment.

You’re likely to go through a roller coaster of emotions—from anger and sadness to disbelief. This is perfectly normal. And like a roller coaster, the experience is unpredictable and full of ups and downs. Just trust that with time, the lows will become less intense and you will begin to find your new normal.

You don’t have to put on a happy face. Learning to live with a disability isn’t easy. Having bad days doesn’t mean you’re not brave or strong. And pretending you’re okay when you’re not doesn’t help anyone—least of all your family and friends. Let the people you trust know how you’re really feeling. It will help both them and you.

Accepting Limitations

It goes without saying that your disability has already changed your life in big ways. It doesn’t help to live in denial about that. You’ve got limitations that make things more difficult. But with commitment, creativity, and a willingness to do things differently, you can reduce the impact your disability has on your life.

Be your own advocate. You are your own best advocate as you negotiate the challenges of life with a disability, including at work and in the healthcare system. Knowledge is power, so educate yourself about your rights and the resources available to you. As you take charge, you’ll also start to feel less helpless and more empowered.

Take advantage of the things you can do. While you may not be able to change your disability, you can reduce its impact on your daily life by seeking out and embracing whatever adaptive technologies and tools are available. If you need a device such as a prosthetic, a white cane, or a wheelchair to make your life easier, then use it. Try to let go of any embarrassment or fear of stigma. You are not defined by the aids you use.

Set realistic goals—and be patient. A disability forces you to learn new skills and strategies. You may also have to relearn simple things you used to take for granted. It can be a frustrating process, and it’s only natural to want to rush things. But it’s important to stay realistic. Setting overly aggressive goals can actually lead to setbacks and discouragement. Be patient with yourself.

Where to Begin Your Mental Health Improvement Journey

asking for help is ok if you have a mental illness in a wheelchair

Talk to your doctor or trusted medical professionals. When you visit your primary care physician or specialists, discuss your mental health symptoms as well as your physical ones. Your doctor can often connect you with helpful resources.

Begin working with a therapist, counselor, or other licensed mental health professional. A trained therapist can help you learn coping skills to begin accepting your limitations, as well as offer professional help to change negative thinking loops and begin to develop positive coping strategies for mental illness in a wheelchair. A therapist or counselor will always be your biggest cheerleader and help you recognize the highs and wins that you may miss or discount, especially when you aren’t feeling your best.


Exercising and maintaining a healthy diet have been shown to boost endorphins, aid in stress management, and support mental illness in a wheelchair. As a wheelchair user, getting active will bring you important health benefits and can help you manage daily life, too.

Regular aerobic exercise – the kind that raises your heart rate and causes you to break a sweat – and muscle-strengthening exercise are just as important for the health and wellbeing of wheelchair users as they are for other adults.

Whatever your preferences and level of physical ability, there will be an activity or sport for you. Physical activity does not have to mean the gym or competitive sport, though these can be great options. Activity can take many forms and happen in many places. To improve your health, try to choose activities that improve your heart health and muscle strength.


Find social outlets. Cultivating friendships and a social network can help prevent feelings of loneliness, isolation, and associated depression. Join a local interest group, take a class, try a sports club, or talk to your therapist about other ideas for connecting socially.

mental illness in a wheelchair

Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling. During times of increased social distancing, people can still maintain social connections and care for their mental health. Phone calls or video chats can help you and your loved ones feel socially connected and less lonely or isolated.

Develop a mindfulness practice. Numerous studies have shown that mindfulness and meditation can help prevent or offset the impact of stress and anxiety.

Make time to unwind. Try to do some other activities you enjoy.

Connect with your community, support groups, or your preferred faith-based organization. While social distancing measures are in place, consider connecting online, through social media, or by phone or mail.

Can The Right Chair Help Improve Your Mood?

redman powerchair

Investing in the right wheelchair can make a huge impact on mental health. The ability to stand and look peers directly in the eye can do wonders for self-esteem. When you are able to reach more things by standing and fit through more openings with a narrow footprint, the world becomes more accessible to you – and you can quickly become more independent and confident as a result.

The Redman Power Chair Standing Power Wheelchair is the most complete body positioning system available today; designed for comfort and the therapeutic benefits of movement. Redman’s attention to detail, innovative technology, and focus on customization truly set the bar for standing powerchairs.

Learn more and begin improving your quality of life by continuing to explore our website.

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