Disability vs. Mental Illness

Disability vs. Mental Illness | Mental Illness

Deciphering the differences between disability and mental health problems

Helping out those around you can be a big task, especially if you’re not quite sure what’s going on with them. Understanding the difference between intellectual disabilities and mental illness can be challenging, but we at ConnectAbility Australia, are here to help support you and your loved ones. Learning to tell the difference is the first step towards being able to understand what’s going on and what type of help is best for everyone involved.

Disability vs. Mental Illness | Mental Illness

What are the differences between disability and mental illness?

The Intellectual Disability Rights Service tells us that whilst confusion between mental illness and intellectual disability is common, it is also common for disabled individuals to experience mental health problems.

  • Whilst people with an intellectual disability will find their thoughts are limited by cognitive ability and understanding, those with a mental illness will experience disturbances in their thought processes and perception. Individuals with mental illness may also experience hallucinations and delusions.
  • Intellectual disabilities are lifelong and do not dissipate and typically occurs before reaching 18yrs old. Meanwhile those with mental illness may experience temporary, cyclical, or episodic periods throughout any stage of life.
  • Unfortunately for those with a disability, medication cannot restore their cognitive ability whilst those living with a mental illness may be prescribed medication to help control or manage the symptoms.

Remember, anyone can be affected by a mental illness which is why we need to be there to support each other, especially if someone is elderly or disabled, as they may not be well equipped to deal with the circumstances as well as day to day life.

Intellectual disabilities are assessed by a psychologist whilst mental illnesses are diagnosed by a psychiatrist.

Disability vs. Mental Illness | Mental Illness

Intellectual disability

People with intellectual disabilities have difficulties in learning and understanding due to a shortfall in their intelligence development. They may experience permanent impairment in skills such as cognition, language, motor skills and social abilities. With 1-3% of the population living with an intellectual disability, it is important to remember that they are still equal to other people and need social contact, security, adequate housing, education, work, and every other aspect of normal life.

According to a study in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2008, people with disabilities have a disproportionately high rate of mental illness when compared with the general population. They also have a much lower rate of treatment and care, likely due to poor recognition and umbrella diagnoses. 

Whilst research and development of management strategies have changed over the years, our doctors and clinicians still find it difficult to treat affected individuals with the limited amount of time they have available. Having a specialist such as a psychologist or psychiatrist meet with you will help when coming up with a plan to manage any issues that may arise. If you or someone you know has an intellectual disability, it’s important to understand that they may also be affected by mental illness as well and it’s worth the time and money to see a psychiatrist to help clarify things and get the best care possible.

Disability vs. Mental Illness | Mental Illness

Mental illness

Mental illnesses are disorders that affect the emotions and behaviours of individuals. While most of them cannot be prevented, nearly all mental health problems can be successfully managed and treated. One in four people develop mental or behavioural disorders at some

stage in life. While the causes are complex, they are influenced by a person’s genes, stressful life, difficult background, physical illnesses, and more.

The majority of people with mental health problems often have a hard time coping with the pressures of daily life and can lose things that are very important to them.

Organisations such as Human Rights Australia reminds us that mental illnesses are covered by the definition of disability in the Disability Discrimination Act. Thanks to this act, it is against the law for anyone to be discriminated against because of their disability. However, there are some limited exceptions and exemptions such as when the inherent requirements of a job cannot be performed, after reasonable adjustments have been made.

Employers also have obligations to employees with disabilities, including those with mental illness, under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) and occupational health and safety legislation. Privacy legislation applies to disclosures about an employee’s personal information.

Like intellectual disabilities, people with mental illnesses may not be able to perform the job’s duties due to their condition. While many workplaces are able to make accommodations for you, they have to know what is going on to be able to work with you to adjust your duties.

Identifying the most prevalent mental illnesses

  • Depression is characterised by sadness, decreased energy, loss of interests, sleep and appetite disturbance, feelings of guilt and hopelessness.
  • Schizophrenia is a disorder that is characterised by profound disruptions in thinking, affecting language, perception, including psychotic experiences. It can cause hallucinations, fear and bewilderment.
  • Anxiety disorders include phobic, panic and general anxiety (such as worry, tension, over-breathing) which can cause significant distress to the individual.
Disability vs. Mental Illness | Mental Illness

Why are intellectual disability and mental illness different?

While it has been shown that people affected by disabilities, intellectual or physical, do suffer from mental health issues it is important to remember that they are different and should be assessed separately. In 2009, World Psychiatry published an article by Norman Sartorius who reminds us that it is difficult if not impossible to assess to what extent the disability is caused by the mental disorder.

Keeping that in mind, clinicians and researchers commonly assess the presence of disorders, disabilities, and distress whilst also assessing their severity. When being diagnosed with mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety, your GP will generally ask you a list of questions with a scale as to the severity of how you feel you are affected. The results of these assessments will determine whether or not you need a Mental Health Plan, which typically includes a referral to a specialist. If you are concerned about the wellbeing of yourself or a family member, it is important to see a GP and get the ball rolling.

Understanding the differences between mental illness and intellectual disability are important and treating the two different groups as one leads to wrong assumptions, faulty service planning, and possible discrimination.

Disability vs. Mental Illness | Mental Illness

Where to get help with intellectual disability and mental illness

If you suspect you or someone you know is affected by either condition, it is incredibly important for everyone to get the help they need. ConnectAbility is here to help connect you with all sorts of people to help you live the best life possible. Contact us today on (02) 4962 1000 or (02) 4349 3700 to find out more or visit our website for more information.

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