If you see someone with an oxygen tank, a wrapped leg and crutches, or a deep cough, it’s obvious that they have some type of illness or injury. However, many people who are suffering from health problems don’t have such obvious symptoms. These problems are sometimes called invisible illnesses or invisible disabilities. It’s estimated that as many as 1 in 10 people are dealing with an invisible illness.
Read on to learn more about out what an invisible illness is, how those with invisible illnesses should be accommodated, and how you can help.
What Makes an Illness Invisible?
An invisible illness is one that is not readily apparent. It can range from mild to severe. In some cases, as you get to know someone, you can tell when they are dealing with symptoms of their invisible illness, but in other cases, you really can’t.
To the casual observer, someone with an invisible illness often looks just fine. They might have learned how to get by and fulfill their obligations without talking about their condition. Most people who go to school with or work with the person with the illness might be shocked to learn that they have a health condition.
Examples of Invisible Physical Illnesses
Most chronic physical illnesses are actually invisible at various stages. You might notice that someone is going through chemotherapy because they have lost their hair, but before that happens, you don’t see the symptoms of cancer that brought them in for treatment in the first place. Heart disease, diabetes, and many other illnesses are, in fact, invisible.
Physical diseases that are commonly referred to as invisible also include:
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- and other illnesses that are not only non-detectable by friends and family but also difficult to diagnose for doctors
They are commonly mistaken for depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
Examples of Invisible Mental Illnesses
Most mental illnesses are invisible illnesses. If you go to work, school, a crowded bus, or some type of special event, you cannot pick out who is struggling with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or most other mental health issues.
Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean that the illnesses aren’t causing distress on a regular basis. People with depression can learn to smile through the pain, but they are still dealing with overwhelming feelings of sadness, guilt, and other negative emotions. They might even be considering suicide while going about their daily activities.
Someone with anxiety might have learned to hide the symptoms of a panic attack, but they are still suffering. If someone confides in you that they are dealing with a mental health condition, don’t dismiss it because they seem to be getting along well. “Faking it” might be taking an extreme amount of effort.
Challenges of Living With an Invisible Illness
One of the main challenges of living with this type of condition is that the way the affected individual feels can vary tremendously from day to day. Someone might be able to go jogging one day and feel too sick to get out of bed the next day. This can make others think that they’re exaggerating how ill they are or just trying to get attention. It can be extremely disheartening for someone to deal with other people not believing them in addition to trying to cope with their illness.
When it comes to school and employment, many people with invisible illnesses feel as though their teachers, bosses, and coworkers simply do not understand how they feel. An employer might be confused by their employee’s fluctuation in ability and energy. They might assume that the person is just trying to get by without doing what they are supposed to do on some days and is feeling more motivated on other days. Teachers also might be frustrated by the varying levels of success their student has from day to day.
Legal Protections for Those With Invisible Illnesses
Whether a condition is visible or invisible, there are some legal protections available. In a school setting, a student with a disability or documented illness might be entitled to an individualized educational plan (IEP) or a 504 special education plan. There will be accommodations listed that will be legally enforceable. For example, a student with migraines might be allowed to leave the classroom to lay down in the nurse’s office. A student with chronic fatigue syndrome might be able to skip physical education and or activities that require physical effort.
In the workplace, the Americans With Disabilities Act protects employees and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations. This will differ from person to person and from workplace to workplace; if you are in this situation, talk to someone in human resources about what reasonable accommodations are available.
How You Can Help Those With Invisible Illnesses
The best way you can help those struggling with invisible illnesses is to simply listen and not judge. Believe people when they say they have a particular condition; just because you can’t see any evidence, that doesn’t mean the person is not struggling with an invisible illness.
Keep in mind, however, that someone with any type of illness or disability does not want to talk about it all the time. Encourage your friend or loved one to do what they are able to do but don’t constantly bring up the illness. Trust that they will let you know if they can’t participate in an activity or if they need something in particular from you.
People with invisible illnesses are all around us, and it’s helpful to simply be considerate of others and give them the benefit of the doubt. If you see someone parking in a handicapped parking spot and you don’t see an apparent disability, simply smile and move on. Remember that they might have a condition that you cannot see and that it’s inappropriate to question them about it. Taking what people say at face value can be an excellent way to support those in your community who are dealing with invisible disabilities.