Connecting Mental Health to Overall Health for Folks with Disabilities

By Tracy S. Williams

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that 1 in 4 adults live with a physical disability. While living with a physical disability is not necessarily a depressing state of affairs, there are situations that could frustrate people to the point that it may cause mental health concerns. The CDC also notes that people with disabilities are two or three times more likely to need to take care of the mental health compared to average Americans.

Mental Health and Healthy Eating

Healthy eating and healthy lifestyle are important in combatting mental health struggles, but health professionals advise that mental health management should not be oversimplified. Healthy eating may be one way to manage mental health issues. Feeding the body right gives the brain more quality nutrition. Therefore, healthier food choices may help people relieve mental and physical anguish related to mental illness.

Mental Health and Overall Health

The Mediterranean Diet is a balanced food plan with all food groups included. Each group has its own health benefits. The focus is on a daily consumption of fruits, veggies, whole grains and sources of healthy fats. Individuals can consider a weekly focus on fish, poultry, beans and nuts, with moderate portions of low-fat or fat-free dairy. The eating plan permits for small amounts of red meat, because it contains saturated fat, which can impact heart and brain health.

The Mediterranean plan encourages 7 to 10 servings of fruits and veggies daily. Consumers are also encouraged to eat more whole grains instead of refined grains and use olive oil in place of butter in cooking. To consume the recommended fish twice a week; have fun with recipes using fresh or water-packed tuna, salmon, tuna, mackerel and herring, which bring unique flavors to dishes. Limit meals with fried fish. Another healthful strategy is to substitute beans, poultry and eggs in place of red meat. When choosing to eat met, focus on keeping the portions small and lean. It is fine to use Greek or plain yogurt in smoothies or various cheeses in salads or as a casserole topping. Using flavorful dried herbs and spices in recipes instead of table salt will reduce sodium intake, which is too high in the typical American diet.

This food plan is an awesome way to eat without missing out on food groups.

Caffeine Consumption

Many people think they cannot possibly keep up with busy schedules without caffeine to deal with daily stress and stay awake. The Kantar World Beverage Consumption Panel survey estimated that 85% of Americans over the age of 2 are consuming at least 1 caffeinated drink per day. In addition, at least 68 million Americans drink three cups of coffee every single day.

It is crucial for most people to be aware of how much caffeine they consume in an average day. Medline Plus advises consumers to learn about the amount of caffeine in popular beverages. 8-ounces of coffee can range between 90-200 mg of caffeine, 12 ounces of cola between 35 mg-45 mg of caffeine, 8 ounces of an energy drink between 70 mg- 100 mg and an 8 ounces cup of tea from 14-60 mg. The Food and Drug Administration says that healthy people who do not have heart conditions can safely consume 300 mg- 400 mg of caffeine without adverse effects, although an individual's body weight must be considered as well.

It is vital for people with medical conditions and physical disabilities to be aware that caffeine has many effects on the human body. We enjoy caffeine's effect on the central nervous system, which makes us more awake and energetic. Caffeine also increases the releases of acid in the stomach, sometimes leading to an upset stomach and heartburn; especially if we do not make healthy snack and food choices while drinking caffeinated beverages. Those with physical disabilities may already have weak bones and muscles. The ability to absorb calcium for bone and muscle health is critical, but caffeine may decrease calcium absorption. And too much caffeine may raise blood pressure too high.

According to the American Pregnancy Association, pregnant women should limit caffeine consumption to 200 mg/day. Healthline recommends limiting caffeine intake while breastfeeding as small amounts can pass into breast milk, building up in the baby over time. Still, up to 300 mg, about 2-3 cups (470-710 ml) of coffee or 3-4 cups (710- 946 ml) of tea per day is generally safe. It is important to realize that caffeine can worsen anxiety, but quitting caffeine sharply can make depression worse. Caffeine can increase productivity though, which may decrease an individual's level of anxiety.

The Sleep Foundation says three cups of coffee is safe for those who are having trouble sleeping. The National Headache Foundation suggests 200 mg caffeine per day as a safe intake, but most people who have frequent headaches should not consume caffeine on a daily basis. The American College of Cardiology says that 250 mg of caffeine per day is safe for those with irregular heart rhythms; while Harvard Health advises only drinking tea or cola for those with heart disease or high blood pressure.

Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating may help people who have experienced anxiety around food. Consumers may need to avoid reading books and magazines that oversimplify healthy living. Everyone can keep their bodies fed with adequate calories, with a focus on eating healthy amounts of carbohydrates. Skipping carbohydrates will give people a prime reason to overeat. People can give themselves permission to eat carbohydrates, because all foods fit into a healthy eating plan when consumed in moderation. There are not good or bad foods. Satisfaction comes when we enjoy a meal with friends, family or colleagues without being overly worried about "clean" eating.

Listening to hunger and fullness cues is another key. Each person can stop in the middle of a meal or snack and ask themselves how the food tastes, and their current hunger level. Everyone should accept their personal genetic blueprint. By respecting their own body, each person will feel better about who they happen to be. Don't focus on an obsessive exercise pattern; instead, be active and feel the difference. Any activity is very important for folks with physical disabilities. Exercise will help everyone to feel better.

Each person can make food and exercise choices that honor individual health. No one has to eat or exercise on a perfect manner. Progress is more important than perfection in diet and lifestyle choices.

Staying Away from Fad Diets

Fad diets and their many restrictions can increase anxiety. Many of these diets promise rapid weight loss. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a healthy weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds per week depending on how much weight someone needs to lose to stay healthy. Some diets are high in protein and high in any fat, while very low in carbohydrates.

A meal plan should be balanced in protein, carbohydrate and fat. Weight Watchers recommends 10% to 35% protein, 20% to 35% of fat and 45% to 65% carbohydrate. A balanced diet should also include all food with a small portion of dessert. Following a rigid menu can be frustrating and expensive. A healthy lifestyle plan should also include any physical movement for 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week.

Adaptive Physical Fitness

Health professionals can encourage everyone with disabilities to be physically active no matter their abilities or strength focusing on how often, how long and at what intensity. They can also help people with disabilities figure out how to overcome barriers to getting physically active.

Disability Health

Not every fitness trainer is specifically trained to work with people with disabilities. Fitness programs for the disability community are not a one-size-fits all situation. Some folks do not have a support or buddy system, especially if most of their friends do not also have disabilities. While it may be hard to find accessible sports options if your friend group is mostly able-bodied, it's not impossible. Seek out local programs and expand your circle to include peers that face similar challenges.

Stress Management

Some people with disabilities experience extra stress with managing medical conditions, creating a personal career path or experiencing stigma in certain social situations. Journaling can help them discover the source of deep feelings and frustrations related to living with a disability.

Some people with disabilities believe that is better to only experience the fun times with friends instead of burdening others with deep frustrating feelings. They often prefer to keep a tight inner circle of friends that they can be completely transparent about daily or intimate struggles. Coping strategies can include scheduling time to meditate or deep breathe and reading a favorite book genre. Spirituality is another way people stay centered emotionally. Learning to manage a schedule helps manage stress, especially by not procrastinating on projects or tasks.

Proper sleep is important and may require pain management techniques to achieve enough sleep. While sleep requirements vary somewhat from person to person, most healthy adults need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to function at their best. Children and teens need even more. And despite the notion that our sleep needs decrease with age, most people still need at least 7 hours of sleep.

Mental Health Myths and Facts

Some people are not emotionally aware enough to realize that they are affected by mental health problems. People can be impacted if a loved one died by suicide or survived a suicide attempt, even if an individual does not have a diagnosed mental health problem. Some people do think children are not impacted by mental illness, but some do have anxiety or depression depending on what happened during childhood.

One misconception is that people with mental illnesses are lazy, but those with depression and anxiety can hold down a job, especially if they have counseling and possibly medication. Friends and family can make a big difference in the treatment plan by encouraging honest communication.

Exercise and Disability

Suicide Prevention

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Every day, approximately 123 Americans die by suicide, while an estimated quarter million people each year are suicide survivors.

As a community, we do not like to say every experience with a disability is depressing, but there may be circumstances that lead a person to contemplate suicide. These include chronic pain, extreme physical illness, long term underemployment or unemployment, as well chronic isolation if a person with a disability does not have access to counseling or an unconditional support system of friends, family, community resources or advocates.       

The best most efficient way to prevent suicide is to find a trusted counselor, pastor or social worker to speak to about your personal issues.

There are many things to consider when you are finding a trusted counselor to discuss your personal issues. Not every counselor has experience working with people who have disabilities or chronic conditions. Some counselors might believe that some disabled clients may not be able to accept their diagnoses, but the truth is that we might have mental health issues due to the ableism we experience on a daily, or weekly basis. We need to build a trusted relationship with a counselor who understands our truth. Understanding that there are multiple treatment options will help people realize how long they may be in counseling treatment. A therapist might look great on paper, but you may still not have trust in their ability to understand and empathize with your life experience.

Mental health management has many components to the healing process. It is never a one-size-fits-all situation. Not everything that works for someone else will work for another person. Mental health concerns are never a simple problem with an easy solution. These are just ideas when it comes to possible solutions.

About the Author:

Tracy Williams has her degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from Dominican University. She loves to debunk nutrition myths for a variety of audiences, but with a focus on the disability community. She has presented at Abilities Expo Chicago twice. Her mental health presentation will be part of the virtual offering in June. She has contributed for Abilities Buzz, Push Living and Disability Horizons. You can connect with her via her website

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