Disabled adults experience increased depression, anxiety during COVID-19

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Social isolation was the main predictor of increased depression and anxiety among disabled adults during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), according to a new study.

The study, published in the journal, Rehabilitation Psychology, was conducted by researchers at Oregon State University (OSU). They sought to examine the mental health impact of COVID-19 on people with disabilities in relation to stigma, social isolation, and demographic characteristics.

Researchers used data from a larger online survey that examined the health and psychosocial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on adults with disabilities living in the United States between October and December 2020. There were 441 participants engaged in the study, all of whom self-identified as having a disability. The results found 61 percent of participants met the criteria for probable major depressive disorder and 50 percent for probable generalized anxiety disorder.

Those statistics are much higher than the pre-pandemic baseline among people with and without disabilities, according to Kathleen Bogart, PhD, co-author on the study and an associate professor of psychology at OSU.

Stigma was also a significant predictor for depression and anxiety, particularly from conversations and policies around medical rationing where disabled people were deemed low priority for lifesaving COVID-19 resources, according to Bogart. For disabled people this translated into greater fear of contracting the virus and needing medical care that might not be available, which caused more social isolation.

The researchers said medical practitioners were often directed to focus resources on patients who were likely to have “a good quality of life” after the pandemic, but the healthcare system frequently underestimates the quality of life among disabled people.

The study concluded that social isolation, disability-related stigma, worries about contracting COVID-19, younger age, and physical pain were all major predictors of both depression and anxiety symptoms among the disabled people surveyed. In addition, having a pre-pandemic mental health condition and difficulty accessing basic healthcare supplies were significantly associated with depression symptoms. Participants who identified as having multiple disabilities also reported higher anxiety symptoms as those with high support needs faced disruptions in their formal and informal caregiving.

For those integrative practitioners who treat patients with disabilities, this research can serve as a reminder to become better informed about implicit and explicit ableism. In addition, practitioners can evaluate any practice policies that may hinder accessibility to healthcare and treatment.