Two boys sitting on a wall in the park together smiling.

A guide for young people Disability and mental health

Disability and mental health intersect in various different ways. Find out more and read tips for looking after your mental health created by and for Disabled young people.

What is a disability?

A disability is any physical, sensory, or mental health condition or impairment that can make it harder to do day-to-day activities.

It’s a broad term and covers a range of very different conditions and experiences. In fact, there are 14 million Disabled people in the UK – that’s one fifth of the population.

Whether or not you identify with the term is up to you and you alone.

There are different ways of thinking about disability. Some people look at disability with what’s called the medical model of disability. The medical model says that Disabled people are disabled by their condition or impairment. But more and more people are using the social model of disability. This model says that Disabled people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their condition or impairment. So, for example, the medical model would say that a Deaf person is disabled because they can’t hear. But the social model would say that they’re disabled by society not being accessible enough for the Deaf community. The social model tells us that society needs to change, not Disabled people. Because it’s not Disabled people’s responsibility to make society more inclusive. It’s everyone’s responsibility.

You might already be familiar with the term ‘neurodiversity’. This word describes the idea that different people’s brains work in different ways. Many people in society are ‘neurotypical’; in other words, their brains work in a way that’s seen as standard. But some people are ‘neurodivergent’, meaning their brains don’t work in a way that’s seen as standard. This could be because of a mental health condition, or a neurodevelopmental condition like autism or ADHD.

Neurodiversity is one example of the social model of disability in practice. It recognises that nobody has a brain that is “wrong” or “faulty”; it might just work differently to other people’s. And the difficulties that neurodivergent people experience in our society aren’t because there’s anything wrong with them, but because society is designed to centre neurotypical people.

Struggling with your mental health can be a disability. It’s hard to say exactly when a mental health condition becomes a disability, because everybody’s experience is different. Ultimately it comes down to the impact your mental health has on your ability to live your life as you want. Not everyone who struggles with their mental health will consider themselves Disabled. But some do, and that’s completely valid.

Living with a disability in a society that isn’t always accessible to Disabled people can have a real impact on your mental health. However, you can struggle with your mental health in a way that’s unrelated to your disability. Whatever the reason you’re struggling with your mental health, you deserve help that’s accessible to you and acknowledges all of you.

Visible and invisible disabilities

  • When we think about disability, it’s common to think only of visible disabilities. But not all disabilities are visible – meaning they are not apparent just by looking at the person.

    Struggling with your mental health is one example of an invisible disability. It’s impossible to tell that someone has a mental health condition just by looking at them. This can sometimes mean that it’s harder to get the support you deserve, but it doesn’t make your disability any less valid.

A girl in a wheelchair smiling and chatting to a boy sitting on a bench in the park.
Focusing on my ability rather than my disability enabled me to change how I saw myself. Yes, there are things I can’t and may never do, but will they stop me from recognising the other things - the things I can do? Never.
Emily, 22

Hear from other Disabled young people

  • Your best looks different every day. The world will keep turning even when you take a day to rest.
    Nicole
  • It is amazing to communicate with people who have gone through similar things, and this has been a real positive for my mental health.
    Lucas
  • Your value is not linked to your productivity.
    Lorna
  • You deserve to have your needs met as much as everyone else.
    Abbie
  • There is hope, even if your brain tells you there isn't.
    Shreya
  • Over time, I realised that I could either define myself by what I couldn’t do, or what I could.
    Seren

Tips for looking after yourself

As a Disabled person in an ableist world, it’s so important to look after yourself and practise self-love. This will look different for everyone, and it might even look different for you day to day.

But below are some tips from other Disabled young people that might help.

  • Listen to your body

    Living with a disability can be unpredictable. Some days you might have lots of energy, and others you might need more rest. You might have some high pain days, and other days where you’re pain-free. It can be hard to predict, and this unpredictability can be frustrating. But it’s important to listen to your body and what it needs. Try to think of your body as your friend, not your enemy. It can help you do all sorts of amazing things, but sometimes it needs a bit of TLC.

  • Go at your own pace

    It’s hard not to compare yourself to the people around you, or the people you see on social media. But remember that everyone is on their own journey and we all have different challenges. Follow your own path at your own pace and you’ll get where you need to go.

  • You don't owe anyone an explanation

    People can sometimes ask intrusive or offensive questions if you’re Disabled. They might ask you things about your body that you’re not comfortable answering. Remember that you don’t have to answer anything you don’t want to. Your body is your own, and nobody has a right to know anything about it that you don’t want them to.

  • Keep a mood diary

    Try keeping a mood diary alongside a symptom diary. Even if you only do it for a short while, this can help you understand how your mood and your symptoms overlap. This can be really helpful information to help you plan how to look after yourself if your symptoms fluctuate.

  • Connect with people who get it

    Finding community with other people who get what you’re going through can be really powerful. It can help you feel less alone and provide a safe space to talk about what you’re experiencing without needing to explain. Lots of Disabled organisations host support groups or other events, so try looking online or at the bottom of this page.

  • It's okay to have ups and downs

    It’s normal to have ups and downs when you’re living with a disability, wherever you’re at in your journey. You deserve to feel proud of who you are, but you’re not letting anyone down if you sometimes struggle to embrace your disability. But remember that you are not broken and there’s nothing “wrong” with you. You are you, and that’s amazing.

Check out our tips on how to find out what self-care means for you.

Self-care
At the end of the day, you have got to do what is right for you and take care of yourself.
Sophie, 21
Once I allowed myself to be autistic, I accepted that my brain does function differently to those who are ‘neurotypical’ and sometimes I need to do things in my own way.
Hannah, 22
wide-shot-of-five-young-people-talking-and-smiling-while-walking-in-a-park-with-trees

Getting the medical care that’s right for you can be tough, no matter what stage you’re at with your disability.

Whether you’ve just been diagnosed, or you’ve been Disabled for years, it’s totally normal to find it overwhelming trying to navigate the healthcare system.

It can be frustrating and exhausting, and it’s unfair that the burden lands on you. But you’re not alone.

Here are some tips from other Disabled young people that might help.

Before an appointment, think about what you want to tell the doctor, any questions you have, as well as what you want to get out of the appointment. This can help you make sure you don’t forget anything.

If you’re not sure where to start, you can use docready to build a checklist of what you want to talk about. We also have tips on speaking to your doctor about mental health that might help.

How to speak to your GP

Sometimes it can feel like doctors or other healthcare workers aren’t taking us seriously. Or even just that they’re not listening. If you’re Disabled, you might also feel like everything you tell healthcare workers gets viewed through the lens of your disability. This can be really frustrating and it’s not okay.

Remember they’re there to help you. If you don’t feel you’ve got what you need from an appointment, it’s okay to say so. And if you’re not happy with the person you’ve seen, it’s okay to ask for a second opinion. This can feel scary, but you’re within your rights to do so.

If this doesn’t help, it might be worth getting an advocate. They can help you understand your treatment options and communicate what you want. Advocates are independent – meaning they don’t work for the NHS or any other service. Usually they’re free to use.

Check out the NHS' guide on what an advocate does and how to get one.

Getting an advocate

Medical appointments can go by so quickly and it’s easy to forget everything that’s been said. If you’re able, taking notes or voice recording on your phone is a great way to make sure you stay on top of everything. It can also be really helpful to have a record in case you ever need to make a complaint.

When you try a new medication or treatment, it’s normal for your body to need some time to adjust. Try to factor this in when you’re making plans. It can be frustrating needing to rest, especially if it means missing out on things we want to do. But it’s important that we listen to our bodies so we can give them what they need.

If you’re Disabled, you might need a little bit more support than others with certain things. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it can be frustrating if your ability to do something lies outside of your control. For example, if you rely on a carer or a piece of equipment to do something, it can be really upsetting when you don’t have access to these things.

But instead of focusing on the things you can’t do, try to focus on the things you can do. This won’t fix the situation, but it might help you feel more positive about it.

I know that stress will cause a flare up of my pain. While I can’t avoid all stress, I can try to avoid scenarios which foster it unnecessarily.
Seren, 23

Asking for what you need

close up of a girl with short curly hair looking in front of the camera wearing a face mask

Everybody has needs. But if you’re Disabled, you might have certain needs that non-Disabled people don’t have. For example, you might need more rest than others; you might need lights and sounds to be kept low; or you might need a ramp to access places.

Sometimes this will mean letting people know what your needs are and asking for people to meet them. This can feel awkward or embarrassing, or you might feel guilty or like you’re being a burden. And sometimes you might not get the reaction you want. But you deserve to have your needs met, and you’re never a burden. So, if someone reacts badly to you asking for what you need, just remember that your needs are still valid.

Below are some tips that can help when asking for what you need.

  • Plan what you want to say

    This might not always be possible, but if you’re able to plan in advance what you want to say, it can help take away some of the anxiety. If there’s a situation that comes up regularly, like needing to ask for a seat on public transport, it can help to have a set phrase you use.

  • Remember: you're not being difficult or rude

    In the moment, you might feel like you’re being difficult or rude. Or you might convince yourself that asking for what you need is unreasonable, but it’s not. You have every right to do the same things as non-Disabled people, and it’s not your fault if they haven’t been made accessible for you. Think of it this way: by asking for what you need, you’re taking a small but important step to make the world more inclusive for everyone. That’s a great thing.

  • Find an ally

    It can be really tiring always having to fight for your needs to be met. And it can be isolating if you have to do this by yourself. That’s why it can help to have an ally who can be there to support you and fight your corner with you. This could be a friend or family member, or anyone that you trust and feel able to speak to. Find a time to talk to them about your needs and how they can help. For example, they could help make sure that any plans your friendship group makes are accessible for you. Or they could help with a task that you struggle to do on your own. They might not always get it right, but it can be a real weight off your shoulders to know you’re not alone.

Priority badge for trains

  • Some train companies now offer ‘priority seat’ badges for people who need them. This can make it easier if you need to ask for a seat on a crowded train. You may have to provide evidence of your disability when you apply for your card, but they are usually free.

Tips on supporting a Disabled friend

We asked a group of our Disabled Activists how you can support a Disabled friend. Here’s what they said:

If you’re not sure how to support a Disabled friend, ask them and listen to what they tell you. Different people have different needs, so don’t presume you know what they need from you, even if you have another friend with the same disability. Also, disability can be unpredictable, so your friend’s needs may change over time. Opening up this conversation and letting them know they can ask you if they ever need support can go a long way. But try to find a quiet time when there aren’t other distractions to have this conversation. It’s important to make sure you have the time and space to do the conversation justice.

You might have questions about your friend’s disability, and that’s okay. But don’t ask anything you wouldn’t be happy answering yourself. Disabled people often get asked very personal questions about their bodies, which isn’t okay. Nobody has the right to know anything about your body that you don’t want them to.

If your friend has accessibility needs, try to factor these into your plans. For example, if your friend uses a wheelchair, make sure that where you’re going has wheelchair access. If they have sensory issues, try to pick somewhere that isn’t too loud or bright. Or if they rely on lipreading, try to go somewhere that’s not too dark and face them when you’re speaking. It can feel really isolating if your friends are doing activities that you can’t join. If you can make it everyone’s responsibility to ensure hanging out is accessible to your friend, it can help them feel less alone.

Your Disabled friends might not always be able to hang out, or might have to cancel plans more than other friends. This could be for a number of reasons, like needing to rest or because the plans aren’t accessible to them. But keep inviting them! They will appreciate it, even if they can’t always join.

A lot of the time, we feel like we’re a burden or we’re scared to ask for help when we need it, because we don’t want to be a bother. Always try to remind us that we are not a burden.
Charis, 21
We are constantly faced with what we can’t do, how we are different and what we do wrong. Instead, you can be the voice of hope and belief.
Hannah, 23

Disability and your rights

In the UK, we have a law called the Equality Act 2010 that’s designed to protect people from discrimination. This law covers all sorts of discrimination, including discrimination against Disabled people.

The Equality Act has its own definition of disability. Under this law, you are considered Disabled 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.”In this case, ‘substantial’ means that it takes longer than it usually would for you to complete day-to-day tasks. And ‘long-term’ means that it has lasted, or is likely to last, 12 months or more. If you struggle with your mental health and it meets these conditions, you might qualify as Disabled under this law. This means legally you can’t be discriminated against based on your mental health.

It’s important to recognise here that discrimination against Disabled people can take many different forms. You can find out more about the different forms of discrimination that Disabled people can face and how the Equality Act protects against them in this guide from Mind.

Types of discrimination
Two young people walking down a park path together.

One of the key things this law does for Disabled people is state that organisations, or people providing services or public functions, have to make reasonable adjustments for you. This could include things like making sure a building has a ramp if you need one, or giving you extra time on tests.

Read Mind's guide to reasonable adjustments

If you’re Disabled, you might be entitled to financial support. This can come in lots of different forms. For example, you might be entitled to regular payments like Disability Living Allowance (DLA) or Personal Independence Payment (PIP). Or, if you need money to make your home accessible for you, you might be entitled to a Disabled Facilities Grant. Or, you might be able to get a third off rail fares with a Disabled Persons Railcard.

You can find out more about what benefits you might be entitled to in Scope’s handy guide:

Disability benefits
For me, finding a community of people in similar positions has been instrumental in my healing journey. My mental health has improved significantly since making these connections and realising that I’m not alone.
Laura, 21

Where to get help

Below is a list of services and organisations that can help. There are lots of other charities and organisations that help people with specific disabilities or conditions that aren’t listed here. Have a look at the NHS Health A-Z to see if there is any tailored support for your condition or disability.

  • The Mix

    Free, short-term online counselling for young people aged 25 or under. Their website also provides lots of information and advice about mental health and wellbeing. 

    Email support is available via their online contact form.

    They have a free 1-2-1 webchat service available during opening hours.

    Opening times:
    4pm - 11pm, Monday - Friday
  • Childline

    If you’re under 19 you can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem big or small.

    Sign up for a free Childline locker (real name or email address not needed) to use their free 1-2-1 counsellor chat and email support service.

    Can provide a BSL interpreter if you are deaf or hearing-impaired.

    Hosts online message boards where you can share your experiences, have fun and get support from other young people in similar situations.

    Opening times:
    24/7
  • Samaritans

    Whatever you're going through, you can contact the Samaritans for support. N.B. This is a listening service and does not offer advice or intervention.

    Opening times:
    24/7
  • Scope

    Provides practical information and emotional support for Disabled people.

    Opening times:
    9am - 6pm, Monday - Friday; 10am - 6pm, weekends
  • Asthma + Lung UK

    Supports people living with lung conditions and campaigns for clean air.

    Opening times:
    9:15am - 5pm, Monday - Friday
  • Muscular Dystrophy UK

    Offers information and advice for people living with over 60 muscle weakening and wasting conditions.

    Opening times:
    10am - 2pm, Monday - Thursday
  • Limbless Association

    Offers information, advice and support for amputees, their family and friends and professionals.

    Opening times:
    9am - 5pm, Monday - Friday
  • RNIB

    Offers support to blind and partially sighted people.

    Opening times:
    8am - 8pm, weekdays; 9am - 1pm, Saturdays
  • National Deaf Children's Society (NDCS)Offer

    Supports Deaf children, their families and professionals working with them.

    Offers a SignVideo service for BSL users through their helpline.

    Opening times:
    9am - 5pm, Monday - Thursday; 9am - 12:30pm, Fridays
  • National Autistic Society

    Offers support to autistic people and their families. They have a a wide range of information about autism – from what autism is, to diagnosis, to socialising and relationships.

  • ADHD UK

    Information and resources on subjects including diagnosis, medication, education and employment, as well as online support groups.

  • Dyspraxia Foundation

    Provides information and advice for people with dyspraxia, and for their parents, carers and families.

    You can get support via their online enquiry form.

    Opening times:
    9am - 1pm, Monday - Friday
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This page was reviewed in February 2024.

It was co-created with Disabled young people.

We will next review the page in 2027.

YoungMinds is a proud member of PIF TICK – the UK's quality mark for trusted health information.

Whether you love the page or think something is missing, we appreciate your feedback. It all helps us to support more young people with their mental health.

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