Depression, Suicide, and Disabilities

Individuals with disabilities–both physical and cognitive–have many daily battles. It is my personal opinion as a parent and caregiver of someone with disabilities that one of their biggest battles is with society. I say this from personal experience in trying to help my son fit into “normal” society. His medical issues are dealt with regularly to the best of our ability. I do my best to give him a good quality of life. We do our best to have inclusion. And we do our best to raise awareness about cognitive disabilities. But I  know many families who are not willing to step outside the box and integrate their disabled loved one into “normal” society. The stares, snickers, rudeness…it all makes for a very stressful time. It’s very VERY difficult to deal with alongside the disability. Believe me, I know.

But how does this affect the disabled individual? How does it make one feel when they’re functioning on a different cognitive level, or in a wheelchair?  How does it make one feel when they get sideway glances, whispers and giggles behind hands, blatant stares? I have a pretty good sense it can make one feel like total crap.


Individuals with disabilities deal with isolation more than those that aren’t disabled. I have seen this for my son, and it breaks my heart every time. Last year I held a birthday party for him. Gratefully, several people showed up. When they left, RJ sat in his rocker in front of the windows and watched. And waited. For hours. I could feel his sorrow and pain as he waited for someone special to show up to see him. Although he did not cry, I did. I went in my room and sobbed. I’m sure this happens for others as well. And for that reason, birthday parties aren’t held, social invites aren’t done or attended…the list goes on. Caregivers also experience this isolation. It’s very painful, and it can add to or lead to depression.

Signs and Symptoms

How can we tell if our disabled loved one is depressed, perhaps even suicidal? As neurotypical persons have symptoms of depression, so will someone with disabilities. These include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Changes in sleep pattern
  • Loss of appetite
  • Problems with concentration
  • Body aches and pains
  • Behavioral changes, ie. angry outburts, crying

For more information about depression and its symptoms, visit the American Psychiatric Association’s webpage.

Causes of Depression

There are several reasons someone can feel depressed. Some are medical, some are due to emotional stress. If you feel your loved one is dealing with depression, consult with your primary care physician for medical testing. This is a good starting place to rule out what may be causing depression. I also feel that checking out your loved one’s social settings and interactions is important. As mentioned above, fitting into “normal” society…or trying to…is no easy task. Perhaps there’s something you can do to make it a bit easier. Severe depression can lead to suicidal thoughts, or tragically, suicide.

Stigma – A Double-Edged Sword

Individuals with any type of disability already have a “stigma” attached to them. People that have different views on religion, politics, same sex marriages…you name it, if it doesn’t fit the mass population’s approval, it’s no good. Any one of these groups can expect negativity in one way or another. This can lead to depression. And there you have another “stigma” added to the mix. Mental health issues. Mental illness. Even though 1 in every 4 Americans has some form of mental health issue, it’s still one of the biggest taboos out there. This is probably why it isn’t talked about, when it should be. Depression is considered to be a mental health/illness issue. But yet, it’s swept under the carpet until it’s too late. And when it gets to the point of someone committing suicide – there’s another stigma.

A Note About Caregivers

We as caregivers have much to do and much to look out for. We need to make sure our loved one’s physical needs are met.  their quality of life is good, and that they’re happy. In order to do this, (we aren’t always aware of it), we must fight a very close-minded society. It’s a tough battle not only for our loved ones, but for ourselves. Then throw into the mix the financial battles to survive if you can’t work while caring for them, and the constant battle to keep benefits in place. We, too, can be–and are–isolated. While we may have friends and family that listen and are supportive, they don’t walk our walk. Although our loved ones are priceless gifts to us from our Higher Powers, our journey in caring for them can be pure Hell. The battles we fight for our loved ones aren’t figments of our imagination, as some may say. It’s a kick-ass reality that can drag you down faster than you know it.

A Way Out of the Darkness

Depression is a very dark place for anyone. There are many programs that are geared towards  suicide (hotlines, home welfare checks), but these seem to be for “neurotypical” individuals. What can we do to help a disabled individual that’s becoming depressed? It might take a little more work in that we should check out their socialization. Are they getting enough human contact….meaning, compassion, empathy, friends? We need to make sure their other needs are being met also, but I’d bet money on where there’s something lacking.

Check on a disabled friend. Or their caregiver. Play a game of cards…seek out their company. A disabled individual and/or their caregiver have a lot to offer. We often say, “You’re so strong” or other seemingly words of encouragement. While they may have more strength in one area or another, the bottom line is they’re still a person. A human being. That might just need a hug, or a hello, or time spent having a cup of coffee. By doing so, you very well could be making a huge difference in their outlook on life.