How to Create Accessible & Inclusive Digital Platforms for Those With Mental Health Disabilities

Illustration of a person working on their mental health; a large silhouette of them is the center of the image and inside the silhouette is a smaller version of them growing a garden.

Image Description: Illustration of a person working on their mental health; a large silhouette of them is the center of the image and inside the silhouette is a smaller version of them growing a garden.

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How to Create Accessible & Inclusive Digital Platforms for Those With Mental Health Disabilities

When crafting accessible and inclusive digital platforms for those living with mental health disabilities, avoid triggering images, words, and phrases, such as jumbled text, disorganized layouts, timed forms, illustrations depicting those in distress or despair, and others.

Feb 16, 2022

Considering the all-consuming nature of our online existence, ensuring your digital products are accessible should be considered standard practice.

At the heart of inclusive design is the idea that everyone has access to the digital world, including people with “hidden” or “invisible” disabilities. These include learning and cognitive impairments, such as dyslexia, and speech and language disorders, along with mental health disabilities, such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, among others.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately one in four, or 61 million adults currently have some type of disability. The public health agency also notes more than half of Americans live with a mental health disorder, such as bipolar, depression, general anxiety, and others.

Those within the mental health disability community often experience stigma, shame, and other negative effects and responses by their peers, co-workers, neighbors, and friends, partly due to society’s general ignorance of mental health disorders. Instead, they’ll dismiss someone’s struggles as them just having a bad day or feeling sad.

“People with mental illness already feel like they don’t fit into a specific category or bucket. They’re not physically disabled or neurotypical, and on top of that, mental illness is already stigmatized in general,” Lauren Perna, mental health advocate, CEO & lead writer for Lauren Perna Communications, a Boston-based communications firm, tells InclusionHub.

“It’s really one more way that our society is saying: ‘Unless you have a physical disability, that I can see or recognize, you aren’t actually disabled.’”

According to a survey administered by telemedicine platform GoodRx Health, 62 percent of respondents suffering from mental health disabilities, such as anxiety and depression, say their symptoms have worsened since the novel coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). Four hundred of those surveyed also admitted to experiencing more panic attacks.

Human connection is necessary now more than ever, especially as many continue to utilize digital platforms for everyday functions and activities. When developing an inclusive and accessible website for the mental health community, organizations—particularly those within healthcare and other patient portal based platforms—must meet the basic needs of these often underrepresented groups.

Learn more about improving web accessibility and digital inclusion for those with mental health disabilities through streamlined design, language, tone, imagery, fonts, user-friendly portals, and others.

What Are Mental Health Disabilities?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) classifies a mental health disability as a "medical condition that disrupts a person's thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning."

Additionally, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) breaks down mental illness severity into two specific categories: Any Mental Illness (AMI) and Serious Mental Illness (SMI). While both can affect daily functions, AMI includes those with "a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder," while those with SMI live with "serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities."

While there’s no specific cause of mental illness, the CDC suggests specific environments, experiences, and genetics are all risk factors.

The most common factors contributing to a mental health disability diagnosis include:

  • Childhood Traumas or Other Stressful Experiences: Abuse, Assault, or Other Violent Encounters
  • Physical Health: Cancer, Diabetes, or Other Chronic Conditions
  • Genetics or Chemical Imbalances
  • Self Isolation & Loneliness
  • Substance Abuse

Digital Inclusion & Accessibility Obstacles & Challenges Within the Mental Health Community

When communicating with the mental health community—especially those living with general anxiety disorders—digital platforms can be frustrating, scary, and upsetting. With these feelings amplified from the coronavirus pandemic and other external influences, it’s recommended to present all information in a streamlined, organized format.

Those living with diagnosis such as general anxiety disorder could also experience undue stress and frustrations when faced with labor-intensive and confusing digital form submission requests

“There is nothing more discouraging when I’m trying to find more information on a web portal, and it says: ‘Fill out this form,’ and that’s the only way you can reach someone,” Perna says.

“You’re only given one option, and for a neurotypical person that can be frustrating. The same goes for someone with anxiety who might not feel comfortable picking up a phone to speak to a representative. There needs to be more inclusive communication options.”

While Perna says this element is imperative, there has to be a delicate balance—too many choices can also be confusing, anxiety provoking, and overwhelming.

“There are some websites that take you through the whole entire journey 10 times—just keep it simple and make it easy to navigate. Having too many options and tabs can really paralyze somebody that’s living with a mental illness.”

How to Communicate With & About Individuals With Mental Health Disabilities

When designing and developing websites for the mental health community, it’s best to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the ADA Guidelines. It’s recommended to consult the National Center on Disability and Journalism Disability Language Style Guide for inclusive copy and grammar.

Below is a sampling of several recommendations on how to improve web accessibility and digital inclusion for individuals with mental health disabilities:

  • Add Relevant Headings & Lists
  • Evenly Distributed White Space Throughout Your Content
  • Separate Content Into Shorter, Condensed Paragraphs
  • Implement Bulleted Lists
  • Include Logical Reading Order & Organization
  • Use Friendly Fonts & Softer Color Tones & Hues
  • Properly Coded Search Bars With Easy Navigation & Relevant Explanations
  • Minimize Complexity to Avoid Cognitive Overload
  • Incorporate Diverse Imagery Without Depicting Those in Distress or Feelings of Hopelessness
  • Avoid “Timed” Submission Forms
  • Refrain from language that could be deemed offensive to those within the mental health community, such as insane, crazy, psycho, maniac, or nuts.
  • Don’t use stereotypical phrases reflecting negativity. Instead of saying normal person vs. healthy person, instead say: person with a disability.

Angie Chaplin, owner of Mindful Leadership, an Iowa-based leadership, coaching and consulting practice, previously told InclusionHub that when it comes to web copy in general, taking a softer approach is recommended to reflect inclusive language. Alcohol-free since early 2020, Chaplin recommends avoiding text and design depicting shame and stigma—both of which are often associated with addiction and mental illness.

“If it’s written as ‘You need to do this,’ and ‘You should do this,’ to me that is very abrasive and confrontational and can also be perceived as being judgmental—especially more related to my previous alcohol use—around triggers of shame and guilt, because I got stuck there for so long. I still go through some periods of that [feeling judged], and if I feel something is a trauma trigger for me, then I will scroll past it.”

Why Accessible & Inclusive Digital Platforms Make Sense

Aside from ensuring digital platforms convey confidence toward the mental health community, it also makes good business sense to do so. According to analyst firm Gartner, as cited by marketing, sales enablement, and customer service platform HubSpot, WCAG Level 2 compliance websites are expected to outpace their competitors by 50 percent within the next two years.

“Having an inclusive website means we’re creating a more connected world, and you’re reaching people who you may not have otherwise connected with in the first place,” Perna says. “In my mind, it’s about creating a more accessible world for people who may not have otherwise felt as though the world thinks of them as someone with a disability.”

Written by Regina Jankowski

Regina Jankowski is a Senior Inbound Content Developer at Morey Creative Studios.

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