Why Severe Anxiety is a Disability
Severe anxiety has taken away my daughter’s ability to function in real life situations on a daily basis. She is not able to navigate school successfully, impacting her learning. Friendships are hard to sustain. Activities outside of school are nearly impossible to participate in given the extent of her anxiety. She has spent hours on the couch crying and shaking due to uncontrollable anxiety. The intensity of the anxiety ebbs and flows. With treatment, she is able to manage her anxiety for periods of time. Read about our entire journey with child anxiety here. During these positive periods of time, life returns to a more typical routine but never near a life without anxiety. As a family, we must plan for every decision we make, having lost any sense of a secure, planned future, both financially and emotionally.
OUR FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH SEVERE ANXIETY
Around the age of 5, it became obvious that J’s anxiety was debilitating and we were no longer dealing with minor anxiety here and there, but life-altering anxiety. I felt unclear about our position in life…I did not have a healthy, typical child, but I didn’t think I had a disabled child either. Where did we fit? I was embarrassed to ask for help and assistance because my daughter looked typical and healthy. Guilt ran through my body as I thought that I had caused this intense anxiety. Confusion took over my thoughts as I struggled with the reality of our life where I knew my daughter was not “typical” but society was showing me that she was expected to be “typical”.
At the time of her first episode of really intense panic attacks, combined with her first signs of OCD intrusive thoughts, we were living in a very small, isolated town with no mental health services. It was suggested I encourage her to focus on her breathing in these moments and simply tell her to calm down and everything would be all right. OMG…I had tried this over and over again while my daughter walked around the house crying and repeatedly asking the same questions over and over. She would not wear a shirt because of the feeling on her neck. We were way past the “calm down, you are fine”. I was told to just send her to school. We did this but she walked around the classroom crying, clinging to her teacher.
LEARNING THAT CHILD ANXIETY IS A DISABILITY
It took us over a year to get into Children’s Hospital where we were finally given the facts about our daughter’s condition. She was sick. She has debilitating anxiety and OCD…it is real! There is no cure but there are treatment options that lead to managing these issues with great success. I was heartbroken knowing that my sweet baby girl had such an intense battle to fight but I was immensely relieved to be told that she has a real medical condition. It was not bad parenting or a bratty child.
Over the past 8 years, I can confidently say, through experience, education, and research, severe anxiety is a disability. Children with anxiety should be offered every opportunity to succeed despite their condition. It is as real, and as difficult, as any other disability. All health situations are unique and bring their own set of challenges and heartbreak. There should never be any type of “competition” that this illness is worse than that illness. Each illness takes away the carefree nature of childhood and the joy that comes with it. In its place is the unknown of what the future holds, how situations will be handled, and what options are needed to make each day as successful as possible. The financial burden is enormous as many health insurance plans do not cover the type of mental health treatment that has been proven to provide relief.
A disability is never to be taken advantage of nor is it an excuse for not seeking treatment. There are ways to manage anxiety and live a successful life, but it must be accepted that due to anxiety, special needs and accommodations are often necessary. Learn how to empower your anxious child rather than enable them here.
WHY CHILD ANXIETY IS A DISABILITY
Anxiety is common, impacting most people at some point in their life. The anxiety can come and go depending on the experiences happening. It becomes a health issue when it becomes chronic, creating irrational fears that interfere with life functions. Anxiety can lead to excessive worry, distorted thought, situational avoidance, and negative behavior. When anxiety leads to the inability to function in a typical manner, it is then considered a disability.
The ADA (Americans with Disability Act) defines a disability in terms of legal rights rather than medical but says that “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” is then considered disabled.
Webster’s dictionary defines a disability as “a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with, or limits a person’s ability to engage in certain tasks or actions or participate in typical daily activities and interactions.”
The World Health Organization defines disability as “an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.”
As seen in the three definitions above, a key similarity is that a person must not be able to function in situations like a “typical” person would. This is where anxiety rears its ugly head. This isn’t a one-time occurrence, such as giving a speech during class, it is occurring nearly all of the time each and every day. A child with anxiety is unable to attend school in the same way as a typical child. Extracurriculars are not possible for an anxious child for various reasons.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP
I don’t write this to complain about our life or to bring sympathy to my family. I write this to share with the world that anxiety is a real medical condition and must be thought of as such. It is not a weakness, bad parenting, or a choice. It is manageable, allowing children to live a successful independent life with the right treatment and support from all involved in their daily life.
If you are reading this, and one of the lucky few who has never experienced anxiety in either yourself or your child, I imagine that this is hard to truly comprehend the impact severe anxiety has on a person. Just like I cannot imagine what life is like for a family with epilepsy, diabetes, or a child whose mobility is limited to a wheelchair. While I may not walk in their shows, I respect the difficult circumstance of their illness/disability. I would do anything to offer support to these families. I would ask the same of everyone else out there. While you may not understand severe anxiety in children, respect the realness of the illness and the limitations it can place on their life and the life of their family. Do not judge or make assumptions.
I used to feel guilty making requests and accommodations and thinking of my daughter as special needs because I know there are so many awful illnesses and health issues affecting children all over the world. While I am so thankful that in most ways my daughter is healthy, it must be acknowledged and accepted that she has a severe health issue. She is unable to do typical tasks and does not meet typical expectations due to her anxiety and OCD. For this reason, I must make accommodations for our family’s life and her life in order for her to succeed. Several ideas on how to accommodate anxiety at school are found here.