Ableism in Mental Health

Recently, there have been a lot of national conversations about mental health and taking care of yourself. From Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open to take care of her mental health, to Britney Spears speaking about her mental health while under conservatorship, to Simone Biles withdrawing from Olympic events to put her mental health first. We can see the impacts of mental health and the need to care for ourselves in the media and on national platforms. 

While I am a huge proponent of self-care and tending to our mental health, it’s important to note the ableism within our mental health care systems. 

Ableism is discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities and the idea that nondisabled people are superior. Ableism often goes along with the “cure” mentality that a person with a disability should be “fixed” to join the superior, nondisabled group. 

How does this come into play when we talk about mental health?

First, people with mental health disabilities are often mocked, disrespected and treated negatively by society. When Naomi Osaka dropped out of the French Open, many people made fun of Ms. Osaka for not being able to “handle the pressure” of talking with the media. Britney Spears has been under a conservatorship for thirteen years and society simply called her “crazy.” Now, Simone Biles is the subject of criticism for “giving up.” 

Yes, many people have been supportive of all these women, and there are people who support anyone who puts their mental health first. That does not mean that needing help is not still stigmatized. The stigma of needing help for our mental health is so pervasive that many people are reluctant to seek help because they do not want to be perceived as “weak” or “crazy.” 

The ableism is even worse when a person has multiple disabilities. For example, I am a wheelchair user. My mobility disability is my most recognizable disability, so much so that people often believe that it is my only disability. It’s not though. I also have Generalized Anxiety Disorder or “GAD.” When I first sought help for my GAD, after years of avoiding seeking help, I encountered so much ableism from mental health providers. 

One time, I set up an appointment with a therapist and was excited that I was finally going to talk to someone about everything that I needed to get off my chest. When I arrived at the therapist’s office, I saw a giant set of stairs. I called and asked where the accessible entrance was. The therapist said, “you never told me you were in a wheelchair” and acted as if the entire situation was my fault. This happened four years ago, 27 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law which requires public accommodations (like therapists offices) to be accessible. 

Next, I went to a different therapist who has an accessible office but they tried to relate all of my anxiety to my physical disability. The therapist genuinely thought that all my anxiety was somehow related to the fact that I use a wheelchair, even though I told her that I am a proud disabled person, I love my wheelchair, and I was anxious because I had a tyrant CEO who screamed at me all of the time and made my life difficult. 

These experiences made me give up on seeking help. In fact, they made my mental health worse. It took another year for me to even consider reaching out for help again. When I did start seeking help again, I emailed tons of therapists with questions about their views on people with disabilities because I did not want to have the same bad experiences over and over again. 

Eventually I contacted my current therapist. She replied to my email to tell me that her office is accessible, she welcomes all people, and that she would work to make any accessibility improvements necessary to ensure I could access mental health services. When I first met with her, I told her about my bad experiences with therapists and that my anxiety had nothing to do with the fact that I use a wheelchair. She believed me. She never questioned me or asked if I was sure that the two weren’t related. She treated me as she would treat any other client and she made me feel comfortable. 

Three years later, I am still seeing my therapist. Although we meet less frequently now, she has helped me work through some terrible situations in my life and even helped me feel confident to quit working for my former CEO. 

I am so happy that I finally have good mental health services, but it shouldn’t have been this hard to begin with. There shouldn’t be a stigma around seeking mental health services. Mental health services should be more accessible to everyone and mental health providers need to learn that mental health disabilities are not always related to other disabilities that a person may have. 

About Stephanie Woodward: Stephanie is a brand ambassador advisor for Quantum Rehab® and works as a disability rights activist. She has received many awards for helping communities become more accessible, as well as for her actions in fighting for the rights of disabled individuals as it relates to Medicaid and other support services. Click here to learn more about Stephanie.