A recent study in the USA found that adults with disabilities reported experiencing more mental distress than those without disabilities. If Namibia had the resources to do the research, we would sadly find the results to be not much different. Frequent mental distress is often associated with increased use of health services, mental disorders, chronic disease, and limitations in daily life. There is a significant connection between disability and mental health, but that connection is far more complex than it might at first seem.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, isolation, disconnect, disrupted routines and interrupted access to health services greatly impacted the lives and mental well-being of people with disabilities. Persons with disabilities often have a compromised immune system and needed to be extra careful during the pandemic. We all learned how precious and fragile our health is during the pandemic, persons with disabilities did not need this lesson, they always knew. The added spectre of catching a potentially deadly virus in the form of COVID-19 just added to the mental burden that they had to contend with.
In Namibia, healthcare services were stretched to a breaking point, hospitals were flooded and as so often the people who are marginalized in one way or another found that they were almost completely ignored during the pandemic. Causing extra mental health distress with no way to engage on the subject or talk to professionals. With around 100,000 persons with disabilities in Namibia, this is an important topic.
Namibia is focused on achieving the 17 UN SDGs, that will help us attain a better standard of living and as a country grow our economy. However, if we do not look after and improve the lives of those most side-lined and forgotten, we cannot hope to achieve the goals that the United Nations have set. This has been embodied in the promise; of Leave no one behind (LNOB), the central pillar of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its SDGs. The 17 Goals in one way or another collectively contribute to making sure the weakest in society are not left behind. Goal number three (SDG 3), Good Health and Well-being resonate the most when speaking on the topic of mental health.
Persons with disabilities are well aware that it fundamentally shapes their life experiences. Most people have accepted their disability as part of who they are. Being able to understand the relationship between disability and mental health into a healthy sense of self is essential. It is not something you just decide to do. A support structure of the family, friends, caregivers, and in fact society, need to be part of this. How will persons with disabilities in Namibia access this assistance, when we as a nation are already living through a mental health crisis?
The LNOB principle is so important as stigmatization and social constraints that so many persons with disabilities regularly face can lead to life-threatening depression. Research shows, for example, that people with disabilities encounter tremendous obstacles to “normal” social functioning that have little or nothing to do with the disability itself. These constraints and barriers are both structural and ideological, from limited access to public transportation to the lack of flexible work options for persons, with a myriad of obstacles in between.
Simply put, it comes down to social structures that limit the full participation of persons with disabilities. Physical barriers, pervasive stereotyping, and the lack of labour participation are, in essence, a perfect storm, all too frequently setting persons with disabilities apart from the rest of society. This places an unbearable strain on their mental health. It leads to and contributes to an increased risk of depression and suicide among a group that is already very vulnerable.
Despite all the diverse challenges described above, life with a disability does not have to mean a life of unhappiness, isolation, or loneliness. Finding engagement and purpose are essential in overcoming isolation and combatting depression. It just means that we all, as Namibians need to make sure that no one is left behind and that especially means the people who at present are most easily and most often overlooked
There is no quick solution or a wand to wave but focusing attention on this issue through articles like this will hopefully start a conversation. It is our hope that we as a nation and Namibian become aware of the struggles that we all face and some of us face greater adversity and need our support.