Mental Health

Why we should be looking at mental health under the social model of disability

In a society that disables people through barriers rather than their impairments, we must not only shift our framework to the social model of disability but ensure that it encompasses mental health.

Why we should be looking at mental health under the social model of disability
Niellah Arboine
Daniella Batsheva

I discovered I was neurodivergent as an adult. Prior to this, I spent most of my life being told I wasn’t trying or listening hard enough. I was making annoying silly mistakes in every aspect of my life, or sticking my foot in it because I missed some important social cue, and that it was all my fault thanks to a lack of willpower. It was like I was treading water, my head barely above the surface, while everyone else swam off leaving me behind. Of course, I internalised this – not once did I think perhaps that there was nothing wrong with me and in fact blame should lie with the world around me who didn’t know how to accommodate a mind like mine.

For the most part, growing up, I learned that being disabled meant a person had a physical or mental impairment, which prevented them from doing certain activities. I was taught by society that the onus was placed on the disabled person’s condition, rather than placing it on a world that doesn’t prioritise the many people with distinct needs. Unknowingly, like many of us, I was looking at disability through the rigid confinements of the medical model.

In reality, disability is a spectrum, and it’s also an umbrella term encompassing many people, including those with mental health conditions. So, in order to understand how society can do better for people with mental health conditions, we also have to unpack and dismantle ableism. What can we learn about mental health through the social model of disability and is it time we all start viewing mental health in the same framework, too?

According to the disability charity Scope, the social model of disability “is a way of viewing the world, developed by disabled people”. While the medical model of disability points to an individual being disabled by their body and mind.

“The social model of disability is all about how society disables us, rather than viewing our bodies as inherently defective,” says writer Micha Frazer-Carroll, who is currently working on a book on the politics of mental health. She uses the example of a wheelchair user coming across a flight of stairs. “The medical model would say the wheelchair user can't get up the stairs because their legs don’t allow them to walk, but the social model would say that the problem is that the building has stairs, it doesn’t have a ramp.” The social model’s framework “moves our focus and emphasis away from our individual bodies and minds and looks at the ways in which society actually oppresses disabled people.”

There are shared barriers, histories and politics between people with mental health conditions and disabled people, and it’s worth noting many people sit within the intersection of both.

“Lots of physically disabled people are excluded from full-time work because of inaccessible workplaces. In the same way, 9-5 work is not accessible for people who are too depressed to get out of bed, for people who are hearing voices, for people who have compulsions that take up a lot of their time,” says Micha.

She also notes that during the 18th, 19th and some of the 20th century, people with mental health problems were historically institutionalised alongside people with learning disabilities, and also suffered under practices and beliefs brought in by eugenicists. “There wasn’t a clear divide between our struggles or oppression.”

For Lucy Webster, a journalist specialising in disability and politics, seeing mental health under the same umbrella of disability could help all parties gain more protection.

“The Equality Act names disability as a protected characteristic, so it's important that mental health is seen as a disability and people are afforded the protection of the law. And practically, many of the reasonable adjustments made for disabled people – flexible working, etc. – help people with mental illness, too.”

The social model breaks down the “mind-body dualism”, as Micha puts it, which is the belief that the mind and body are two separate entities. But the stigma around disability is still driving many to not see themselves as disabled.

“Anyone who grows up within this society has internalised ableism, which can sometimes lead people with mental health problems to really struggle with the idea of being disabled,” she explains.

This is something Lucy also agrees with. “Both are stigmatised, but ultimately I think people don't want to identify as disabled. We're also still stuck in a view of mental health as a medical problem instead of a societal one, which means it gets excluded from a lot of disability activism,” she adds. “Many people see disability as a negative thing; it's still equated with uselessness/vulnerability/being a burden or a failure. Which of course isn't true, but society hasn't really accepted that yet.”

While Micha doesn’t think the social model of disability is perfect, it’s a very useful tool which can help to forge solidarity.

“Using the social model for mental health we can start thinking about the workplace and capitalism... we can also think about the law, which I think a lot of disability activism looks at.”

To move towards a society where we can all live and thrive, we have to unpack how deeply embedded ableism is built into its framework. And we have to question and interrogate the structures that disenfranchise and discriminate against large groups of people. Our bodies and minds aren’t wrong or broken or failing – we just live in a world that is still failing us.

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