Cerebral Palsy & Anxiety: an under-explored relationship
Updated: Dec 16, 2022
Last month, Up Movement shared the statistic that adults with cerebral palsy are 40% more likely to develop anxiety than adults without CP. Additionally, adults with CP are 30% more likely to develop depression than adults without CP.
I meant to write something on this topic a month ago, as it is, unfortunately, a matter close to my heart. Ironically, as soon as the weather turns cold, I tend to be curled up next to my little heater with my therapy light blasting bright white light at me. And my willpower suddenly feels dependent on the sun. So, yup, I didn’t write. All I’ve done really is become an avid green tea drinker.
When I first heard this statistic, I was unsurprised. I don’t think anyone close to me was particularly surprised either. But it did make me stop and wonder how non-disabled people, who are not intimately connected to someone with CP or any other disability, would think about that statistic. Would it surprise them? And if it didn’t surprise them, why did they think we would have an increased risk of depression and anxiety? Did they attribute it to the brain damage? Or did they think it was because life as a disabled person came with additional challenges to life as a non-disabled person? What are those additional challenges? That’s a lot of questions, sorry.
I have an English degree so I can’t tell you anything about the relationship between the brain damage that causes cerebral palsy and the increased risk of depression or anxiety.
But I’ve also lived with cerebral palsy my whole life, so I can definitely tell you that there is a relationship between our lived experience as disabled people and the increased risk of depression and anxiety. And that is something all of us, with or without science degrees, can change.
I am a naturally introverted person. I prefer one-to-one conversations to chats in large groups. Close friendships to loads of friendships. When it comes to communication, writing is my preferred method over talking (…as you can see).
But when I went to primary school, I was hounded with so many questions about my disability. Kids made observations about my body on a daily basis, and there was always the expectation that I would answer them. And CP was hard to explain, especially to another child. I often felt that people weren’t satisfied with my answers. How could it be that an unseen incident in the womb led to a scar on my brain that led to a strange walk? I was bullied.
It was too much for me.
The effects of this were felt the hardest when it was time to move to secondary school and beyond. The way in which my disability was constantly scrutinised had made me turn inwards. The pressure of having to speak about my disability was all too much for my introverted self. Being alone wasn’t just preferential, it was safest. It made me withdraw. It made me quieter. And shy, extremely shy.
These experiences still permeate through me today. I’m still shy. With new people, I’m still on alert for questions or observations asked unkindly. And yes, this has gotten better as understanding of disability has improved and people maybe think more before they stare or ask, but it’s not gone completely. And my anxiety over it is still there.
People with CP are carrying figurative sores on their bodies from their experience as a disabled person. A lifetime of figurative sores. And I have only touched on its impact in a certain social setting here.
When I shared this statistic on depression and anxiety, a parent of someone with CP asked if this was really true. It hurt to say that that the statistic didn’t surprise me. I imagined that if your child does get diagnosed with CP, and you come to think of it as only a physical condition, it must be frightening to learn this statistic.
As a parent, I know that I cannot control everything my daughter experiences. I can consistently be a safe place for her, but that doesn’t mean all the elements of the world will be too. So, unfortunately, one parent can’t squash this increased risk of depression and anxiety for their disabled kid by themselves. One parent with an informed, healthy attitude towards to disability can have some influence over that statistic for their child. But they can’t control it completely. I think the relationship between society, socialising, disability, and mental health are sorely under-explored. There is so much more to look at in how they intertwine. However, I am hopeful that with better awareness of disability, we can make the world better for disabled people, and make some headway on bringing this statistic down.
For more information and guidance, visit Mental Health - UP - The Adult Cerebral Palsy Movement.
 In discussing mental health and disability from my own perspective, I want to make clear that many other factors have contributed to my well-being, outside of my disability. However, I have done considerable work on investigating my mental health and feel able to determine factors (such as the reception to my disability when I was a child) that have led to mental health concerns now.