CORVALLIS, Ore. (KTVZ) – A new study from Oregon State University confirms what many in the disability community already know: People with disabilities have experienced high levels of depression and anxiety during the COVID pandemic. -19.
Social isolation was the main predictor of depression and anxiety, said Kathleen Bogart, study co-author and associate professor of psychology at OSU.
“We know people with disabilities were more socially isolated before the pandemic, so for a variety of reasons the pandemic has amplified that disparity,” she said.
People with disabilities are often immunocompromised or have comorbidities that would lead to more severe COVID-19 infection, requiring stricter home isolation to avoid exposure to the virus.
The study, published in Rehabilitation Psychology, looked at the survey responses of 441 adults between October and December 2020 who identified as having a disability. A total of 61% of participants met the criteria for probable major depressive disorder and 50% for probable generalized anxiety disorder.
That’s much higher than the pre-pandemic benchmark among people with and without disabilities, Bogart said. Previous research in the field has found that approximately 22% of people with disabilities are diagnosed with depression in their lifetime. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, in an average year, about 7% of all American adults suffer from major depressive disorder and 3% from generalized anxiety disorder.
Stigma was also a major predictor of depression and anxiety, particularly from conversations and policies around medical rationing where people with disabilities were essentially seen as a low priority for life-saving COVID resources. This translated into a greater fear of catching the virus and needing medical care that might not be available, and therefore more social isolation, Bogart said.
“Especially at the start of the pandemic, there were explicit policies in place that people with disabilities would not be given priority to receive a ventilator or to even receive COVID tests when these were in short supply,” he said. she declared.
Physicians have been told to focus their resources on patients who are likely to have a ‘good quality of life’ after COVID, but the healthcare system frequently underestimates the quality of life of people with disabilities, whether of someone who uses a wheelchair or someone who has an intellectual disability, she says.
“Some of these policies have thankfully been removed, although I believe some are still in place,” Bogart said. “But even where these policies don’t exist, there are many other, more implicit ways of making health care difficult to access.”
For example, at different times during the pandemic, hospitals and health centers have delayed or canceled all “non-essential” health care to limit the transmission of COVID within their facilities. This means people with disabilities cannot access their regular health care, including physiotherapy or surgery, which can make their condition worse.
Despite the increase in mental health problems, Bogart sees some hope in the study’s findings: social isolation and access to health care are issues that can be resolved quite easily, as in connecting via Zoom and capitalizing on telehealth visits when possible. Several large disability organizations are also hosting virtual community events, which may be more accessible to some people than in-person events, depending on their disability.
“We know that social support is really beneficial; what’s interesting is that perceived isolation or perceived social support is much more important than the actual concrete number of friends in your social network,” she said. “It’s about whether someone perceives their support as adequate.”
Home visits and home support are also key to making health care accessible and safe for people with disabilities when the practitioner needs to treat or physically examine them, Bogart said.
And in the context of telehealth, Bogart said health care systems can improve accessibility by providing automatic captioning for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, providing sign language interpreters and creating platforms on which blind patients can also navigate.