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CMAP Health

What is an Invisible Disability?


An invisible disability is defined as something that interferes with a person’s activities of daily living and is not obviously visible to others. These disabilities are typically chronic conditions and not immediately apparent to others. This could be anything from physical disabilities like Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis, or even hearing impairments. This term also covers ailments like psychological illnesses such as bipolar disorder, depression, ADHD and many more. This term is not exclusive to the ailments or disorders listed above, but for this blog, we will explore the mental health implications of an invisible disability. 


Cause and effect

Having an invisible disability has its challenges, for example, it’s hard to diagnose something you can’t see or recognize. Often people will go through a lengthy process of research and testing to rule out things the doctor thinks it’s not and along the way, they’ll find indicators as to the possibilities of what it can be, but this is usually for complex ailments. Regardless of if your situation is complicated or not, having an invisible disability comes with mental health repercussions.

Whether it’s the strain on mental health due to the unknown possibilities or associated depression, anxiety, frustration or mental illness that comes from having an invisible disability, there are repercussions.  


As stated above there are repercussions to having an invisible disability, but what happens when your invisible disability is a mental health illness? What usually happens in this situation is the symptoms of the mental illness will become exacerbated, making situations worse. If someone is experiencing symptoms of depression and are still managing some of their day-to-day tasks they may find themselves losing interest in doing even their essential activities of daily living, falling into a deeper depressive episode. 


These tasks look different for everyone but as an example, if someone with depression can usually manage to brush their teeth daily, a routine task such as this can become unbearably difficult to accomplish. Significantly reducing the frequency at which they complete the task.    

Stigma & Prejudice

All too often those suffering from an invisible disability refrain from informing employers of an invisible disability unless absolutely necessary due to being met with prejudice and assumptions of professional incompetence. The workplace is not the only place to experience ableism, but it is the most common. 


This can further complicate the effects of a mental illness as it solidifies the fears and anxieties a person may have about opening up and being vulnerable in a place not sensitive to illnesses. The workplace has come a long way and many now do offer services to aid those with invisible disabilities but we still have some major obstacles to face when it comes to invisible disabilities. 


As a society, we have a long way to come in terms of acceptance and understanding invisible illnesses. If you know someone who claims to have an invisible disability, be kind, be curteous and most importantly do not assume you know their capabilities.



About the Author: 

Dr. Sanjay Rao is an experienced teacher and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Ottawa. In 2018, he was awarded a Fellowship of the Canadian Association of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for his contribution to CBT in Canada. He has received an award from the Department of Health, UK for CBT development. He is the Director of Unified CBT Academy and the Medical Director at the Center for Mental & Psychological Health. To find out more about Dr. Rao you can review his profile.






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