I love metaphors. I’m going to blame this on watching way too much of House growing up (every cold is definitely an early sign of pneumonia).
So, imagine I was in a car accident and broke my leg. Painful. And for a few weeks, ‘disabled’. Temporarily. My injury is causing me trouble in most aspects of my life, from accessing lecture rooms to awkwardly showering. Then, in scenario A, after six weeks or so (medical specifics hazy here), my leg heals enough to take the cast off and resume how I lived my life before. However, in scenario B, my leg hasn’t healed. I’ve got a complication that means my leg will never heal properly; in fact, I end up having an amputation.
At this point, I now meet the definition given by the government of what a disability is:
You’re disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.
But what if I had a ‘mental impairment’? Well, according to the legislation, a ‘mental impairment’ is completely equal to scenario A/B above, should the effects of that impairment be ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’. So, just as before, falling ill with depression may not necessarily result in me then qualifying as ‘disabled’, should, as with many cases, an episode of depression or other ill mental health last less than a year. However, should that episode of ill health last longer than twelve months (and be considered ‘substantial’, or noticeably and consistently affecting my day to day life), according to the Equality Act 2010, I would then qualify as being ‘disabled’.
Can depression impact on a person’s life to the same ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ degree as an amputated leg? Yes. Of course, there are levels of depression, but at its most severe, depression can cause an intense and permanent-seeming sense of worthlessness, emptiness, apathy, and thoughts of self-harm or suicide. When someone is suffering from symptoms of this level, getting to work, buying food, and even socialising with friends or family can all seem mammoth tasks. Normal daily activities are extremely likely to be hindered. To say, then, that a mental health issue should not be considered a disability does a disservice to those who suffer from them. It minimises and ignores the very real impact symptoms that mental ill health can cause, in the case of a disability under this Act, for a significant length of time.
By contrast, a response which is affirming, compassionate, and motivated by a desire to help the person affected receive help and support, is surely likely to go a long way in removing any stigma felt by that person in having a mental health issue. It would also remove the stigma from ‘having a disability’. Having a disability, of course, is not to say the person themselves should be defined by it, amputated leg or depression inclusive. A disability diagnosis, instead, in both cases, should be an effort to provide that help and support needed for their disabilities, not to hinder their lives to the same extent.
For an amputated leg, that might be a prosthesis. For depression, it might be a recognised care team, or at university (like here at Southampton through Enabling Services), additional arrangements such as relaxed deadlines and mentoring. Again, the goal here is on levelling the playing field. Just as where a physical disability might mean I cannot write in an exam and require a computer, a mental health issue (such as anxiety) might mean I would be best supported by taking my exam in a smaller room. Why not? Why not try, as best as we can, to help those do the best they can regardless of something they didn’t choose?
The important thing, I believe, is that whether a disability is physical or mental, it is recognised and supported in an appropriate manner, so that each individual is able to live their lives in as free and as equal a way as possible.