An analysis of data by the firm Cool Crutches & Walking Sticks suggests that the number of people reporting mental health problems has risen dramatically
"Hidden conditions and disabilities can make it difficult to work, travel, learn and form relationships. People with hidden disabilities are also more likely to experience bullying, victimisation and other negative outcomes, so prioritising awareness around them is key.” Amelia Peckham, CEO, Cool Crutches & Walking Sticks
The number of people with “hidden disabilities” – which includes conditions such as bipolar disorder or depression – increased by almost two-thirds between 2017 and 2022, according to an analysis of government figures.
About a third of the hidden disabilities are mental illnesses, while social and behavioural disorders – such as oppositional defiant disorder – make up 22% of the figures, and learning disabilities 8%.
The number of UK citizens registered with any kind of disability, hidden or visible, has increased by 3.9 million to 16 million since 2011, accounting for almost a quarter of the UK population. Scope, the disability charity, said it estimated that of the total registered as disabled, 80% have a hidden disability, equivalent to 10m people of working age.
The new figures come from mobility firm Cool Crutches & Walking Sticks, which collated Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) data and statistics. A spokesperson for the firm said: “Hidden disabilities are conditions that are not immediately obvious to others. They can be physical, cognitive or mental in nature. Examining six years worth of government data, the biggest rise in hidden disabilities comes from mental health diagnoses.”
The report found almost all disabilities diagnosed in children were hidden. In half of the cases the hidden disabilities were classed as social and behavioural. This was followed by mental health disorders (30%) and learning impairments (26%).
Amelia Peckham, the CEO of Cool Crutches & Walking Sticks, said: “It is important to note that hidden disabilities can have a significant impact on a person’s life. I personally live with hidden and visible conditions and find the hidden much more complex to navigate.”
She added: “In turn I believe these require an equal level of resources, attention and care to support effectively in order to promote accessibility for all. Hidden conditions and disabilities can make it difficult to work, travel, learn and form relationships. People with hidden disabilities are also more likely to experience bullying, victimisation and other negative outcomes, so prioritising awareness around them is key.”
Measuring the prevalence of disability in the UK is not easy, because there is no national register of people with disabilities. Official statistics on disability are generally collected through surveys, of which the most commonly used is the Family Resources Survey. According to a briefing from DWP, the latest estimates from the Family Resources Survey (FRS) indicate that 16.0 million people in the UK had a disability in the 2021/22 financial year, representing 24% of the total population.
The briefing said that the proportion of children reporting a disability has almost doubled from 6% in 2011/12 to 11% in 2021/22, and that there had also been an increase among working-age adults. The proportion of adults of state pension age reporting a disability, however, fluctuated between 42% and 46%.
The briefing went on to note: “Recent growth in disability prevalence appears to be driven by an increase in mental health conditions reported among children and working-age adults.” It said that factors that may have contributed to the increased reporting of mental health conditions include:
The briefing also noted that studies “have shown that people with long-term health conditions and disabilities face an increased risk of experiencing a mental health problem.” It added: “The coronavirus pandemic appears to have exacerbated this.”
The substantial rise in the number of people reporting hidden disabilities over a relatively short period is striking. Extrapolation of survey data suggests that about 10m people of working age have a hidden disability, and the rise appears to be driven largely by an increase in the numbers of people reporting mental illness. The reasons for the rise are difficult to unpick, and because the data is based on self reports, it may represent a greater willingness to be open about mental health problems. At a time when NHS mental health services are under strain, the need to monitor rates of mental illness, and to tackle early signs of mental health problems through community support and digital self-help, is greater than ever.