Disability is perceived and stereotyped in certain ways. That is not always the case, as there are those disabilities you cannot see, or are not that evident. Those disabilities which cannot be seen overtly are conditions related to mental health, which can be just as debilitating and devastating as a physical disability.
Disability is defined legally in the Equality Act (2010), and is legally protected from discrimination. A person is disabled under the Act if they 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 context, the Act defines substantial and long term as
‘substantial’ is more than minor or trivial, eg it takes much longer than it usually would to complete a daily task like getting dressed
‘long-term’ means 12 months or more, eg a breathing condition that develops as a result of a lung infection
In many cases, living with a serious mental illness can fall under those legal definitions. As such, having a mental illness can be classed as a disability. This often gives those suffering a mental illness the same legal rights and protections under discrimination and equality laws as anyone else with a disability.
There are many mental illnesses which can seriously and negatively impact and affect someone’s life – and that of their families. More common mental illnesses seen are:
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
There are of course many other mental conditions. Indeed, there are some learning conditions (such as autism and Asperger’s) which in some cases can also be classed as a disability.
Unlike with a physical disability, it can be hard to diagnose or quantify a mental illness. For every mental condition, there is a great range in both symptoms and severity. How a mental illness will impact upon a person’ s life and well being varies from person to person. It can be very hard to apply rigid legal definitions and terms to something as varying as a mental illness.
It must also be remembered that mental illness has only recently seen a greater deal of awareness, and public campaigns designed to highlight mental illnesses. There is still sadly a lack of public awareness regarding such matters- and regretfully still a certain stigma attached to many mental illnesses. It is only in very recent years that that attitude is slowly starting to change, with people being more open about, and more understanding about, mental illnesses. It was in the 1990’s that a similar change was seen regarding physical disabilities- with the result over time being increased awareness and understanding. Legally, that translated into greater rights and protections from discrimination for those physically disabled. Probably, in a similar way, mental health issues will see greater understanding soon, along with a greater rights and protections in their own right. Until then, those suffering from mental illnesses in many cases (but in no means all; there are some legal rights afforded the mentally ill) will have to rely, if applicable, upon the Equality Act 2010, and the legislation that prevents discrimination for the disabled.
Despite that, the Court of Protection exists to look out for the rights of those who are deemed to have a lack of mental capacity, whether due to a mental illness or another reason. Those deemed insane by the courts (or in some cases considered to have diminished mental capacity) are also afforded some protection and rights, for their own protection, and for the protection of others. However, those laws, rules and rights are afforded to those who have diminished mental capacity and ability – not to those who have a mental illness per se. Further, those laws are there to protect them and others- and not to protect their legal and moral rights, or to prevent them from being discriminated against, in whatever form the discrimination may take.
Although recent years have seem advances such as the Court of Protection, and charities such as Mind raising increased awareness of mental heath issues, there still remains great social and cultural stigma attached to mental illnesses. This can often, intentionally or unintentionally, translate into direct or indirect discrimination against the mentally ill.
Mental illness is often, legally and practically, classed as a disability. As such, in many cases the mentally ill have similar rights to those who are physically disabled. Mental illness is essentially often a disability- but just one that can not often be seem, or quantified. However, those who suffer, suffer the same pain, and often indignities and injustices, as those who are physically disabled.
There are current legal rights and protections afforded to the mentally ill – but maybe those rights are not sufficient as greater understanding and awareness of the issue is raised.