Disability and Depression: Why do Some People Cope Better than Others?

May 13, 2017 by dccinc

Disability and DepressionDisability and Depression

The idea that some people find it difficult to cope with onset or an ongoing disability while others cope extremely well isn’t a new concept. Yet, in our modern world, where we have new conveniences and technology to make life far easier for a person with a disability, why do some people continue to find it hard to cope?


Each person who lives with a disability not only experiences, their disability differently than others, but also copes with their disability in their own way. For some people, it’s a minor inconvenience, while for others, it’s highly intrusive and extremely difficult to cope. Here is an excellent statement from one individual as to how people can become affected by their disability.

“I know that depression and disability often go hand in hand. It can be a lifelong struggle filled with much suffering. I believe there to be so many factors that will and can affect people’s ability to cope, or not, within these stressful confines. Loss of mobility at any level can obviously greatly impact someone’s life and therefore also mood. It is a great loss when you discover your inability to function the way you used to be able to, whether it be cleaning your floors, running with your kids or going out dancing with your friends. Pain can be another great contributing factor to depression in a person with a disability. Are they in constant daily pain? Are they in more pain when they put forth extra effort to maintain normalcy (ie. Sitting/walking/outings)? Must they take pain medications that can exacerbate and/or cause depression? It goes without saying, that employment struggles and/or financial issues will play a dramatic part in one’s ability to cope. I feel, that along with finances, isolation and purpose will be the top factors regarding how well someone with a disability may or may not be able to cope well in their life.”


Canadian's suffering from migraneThe truth is, depression is an enormous issue in our society. In fact, it is important we talk openly about mental health issues and do our best to raise awareness and education people about depression and other mental health issues. The onset of a disability is far different than someone who has a congenital disability. The latter has had years to learn how to adapt, cope, use supports (if and when necessary), and create a life that doesn’t focus on their disability. But, the onset of a disability can be a traumatic experience. In some ways, there is a mourning period to grieve for that which the person has lost. The standard progression of the mourning period is:

  • Shock
  • Denial
  • Depression
  • Adjustment/Acceptance

Unfortunately, some people get caught in the depression stage and don’t move on to the adjustment/acceptance stage. For many of these people, the disability becomes the primary focus of their life and they remain depressed over what they perceive of as an unfair situation. Some people might even experience an expanded series of emotional stages represented here :

  • Shock
  • Anxiety
  • Bargaining
  • Denial
  • Mourning
  • Depression
  • Withdrawal
  • Internalized anger
  • Externalized aggression
  • Acknowledgement
  • Acceptance
  • Adjustment


One of the major issues regarding depression is the continued stigma in our society regarding mental health issues. Some people simply don’t want to hear the complaints or concerns of others. This is especially true from people who tend to cope well. While they often claim to be understanding and compassionate, they might also form judgmental opinions basing them on their own ability to cope with the disability. But, depression is real, and it affects millions of people around the world. There is an urgent need to de-stigmatize depression and support people who cope with this debilitating condition.
Socially, people often find that others will distance themselves when they speak about their depression. They may even hear complaints such as; “what have you got to be depressed about? So many people have it much harder than you.” This critical stance only deepens the sense of loneliness, isolation and desperation so many people with depression cope with on a daily basis.
The following quote on stigma comes from the Center for Disease Control & Prevention:

Stigma has been described as ―a cluster of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate the general public to fear, reject, avoid, and discriminate against people with mental illnesses‖ (President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, p. 4, 2003). When stigma leads to social exclusion or discrimination (―experienced‖ stigma), it results in unequal access to resources that all people need to function well: educational opportunities, employment, a supportive community, including friends and family, and access to quality health care (Link & Phelan, 2001; Corrigan et al., 2004). These types of disparities in education, employment, and access to care can have cumulative long-term negative consequences.


The truth about coping is that it all comes down to support. People with strong family, social, spiritual and financial support tend to cope far better than people who don’t have those levels of support in their life. In fact, it is the lack of support that often causes people to commit suicide. Suicide ideation is often based on the reality that a person’s depression or situation is greater than the resources they have to cope with it. This comes down to a reality that many people simply don’t have the support or resources they require to cope. And so, depression takes hold of their lives and for many, it feels as if there is no escape.


It is not inherent in the disability experience that someone will experience depression. But, for those who do, there is a need for understanding, compassion, and a non-judgmental attitude. If you are someone or know someone who is experiencing depression, here are some excellent resources:

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