A child born with a physical condition like Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) may have the typical childhood dreams of being a firefighter, doctor or astronaut. As they grow, they realize that being in a wheelchair and having a condition that weakens their muscles means they have limitations to what they can do.
I wanted to be a surgeon, but as my SMA progressed, I realized that I didn’t have the strength or dexterity to have that career, and I had to let it go. A quadriplegic person forced into that situation by an accident could grieve the life they had before the accident.
The same goes for a person who develops a chronic illness like fibromyalgia – they may not have the energy to continue some of the activities they could do beforehand.
One in five people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness at some point in their life, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.
It’s unclear if these statistics come from people who are also experiencing other health issues. So what happens when a person also has a physical disability or a chronic illness?
The risk of having a mental illness doubles when a person has a chronic or physical condition. Whether a person is born with a physical disability, acquires one from an accident or develops a chronic illness, being disabled or ill often means having to adjust hopes, aspirations, career paths and lifestyle, and with those changes comes a grieving process.
There are many ways to treat mental health issues, especially anxiety and depression. There’s counselling, group therapy, hypnosis and medications. But one technique that is becoming more well known is having a psychiatric service dog or an emotional support animal (ESA).
An ESA is defined by therapetic.org as “any animal that brings comfort and support to an individual with a psychological, mental or emotional disability. These disabilities can range from social phobias, to depression, to anxiety, and to PTSD.”
Reagan Sommerfeld, a 15-year-old Winnipeg girl has an ESA named Midnight, a six-year-old Lab.
“He is very well-behaved and quiet when on duty and poses no danger to anyone. He helps me with anxiety, which in the past has triggered seizure-like attacks. His job is to recognize the signs and remove me from the situation I’m in and make me sit down. Then he lays across my legs or in between them to keep me from shaking too much,” she says.
“He makes me feel safe and comfortable, we well as protected, because he can normally prevent extremely bad panic attacks.”
She has encountered a few instances where her ESA was not allowed in a store and was asked for Midnight’s documents (which is actually prohibited).
“It sucks, ’cause if I have a visible disability, they won’t say anything, but just because you can’t see my disability it’s different,” Sommerfeld says.
Being physically disabled or chronically ill also leads to being isolated very often. This can be from inaccessibility issues (like not having an accessible vehicle) or being too sick to leave the house. These issues can contribute to a depression disorder.
For those that are still able to leave the house, people can be cruel and may make a person with these issues feel broken, different, useless, left out and unwanted.
Speaking as a person who has a physical disability and a chronic illness, I’ve experienced these feelings, and they really do make you depressed. The sense of vulnerability that comes with being disabled or ill can also bring on anxiety.
Having an ESA has proven to be very beneficial to people who have mental health issues. Hopefully more people with mental health issues will be able to benefit from them, and they will be better recognized in society.
Crystal Rondeau is a rock music and tattoo-loving young woman who lives with a physical disability and chronic illness. Her main goal in life is to break barriers and destroy the stigmas that come with being disabled and ill. She does this by speaking in schools, volunteering and being very open and uncensored about her life.
Published in Volume 73, Number 3 of The Uniter (September 20, 2018)