Disability inclusion and mental health issues gained considerable attention as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but leaders are still grappling with how to properly address them. 

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy and World Health Organization director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus discussed both topics at a Special Olympics health equity event this week.

Dr. Alicia Bazzano, chief health officer at Special Olympics, noted that the event was intended to acknowledge the progress made over the last 20 years when it comes to health equity for people with intellectual disabilities and raise awareness of the work to be done.

“We still have a long way to go,” Bazzano said, noting that due to “significant health disparities across the board,” people with intellectual disabilities have a shorter life span than people without intellectual disabilities.

Murthy, who’s been an advocate for mental health since returning to the Surgeon General position in 2021, emphasized the need for equitable mental health care, specifically for people with intellectual disabilities.

“This is an opportunity and wake-up call for us to ask, ‘How can we create a more inclusive world where not only do we believe that everyone matters, but where they also understand that they matter?’” he said. “Right now, there are millions of people who feel they don’t matter… who feel like they don’t have value to bring to the world. Unfortunately, when it comes to people living with disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities, we make them feel that way too often.”

In December 2021, Murthy declared a mental health crisis among young people. Mental health care advocates supported his announcement, noting that it prioritized the issue from a public health perspective.

Murthy doubled down on that sentiment Monday, calling the nation’s mental health crisis “one of the most critical public health issues of our time.”

“At a moment like this, when so many people around us are struggling with loneliness and isolation… it’s worth asking what we can do to strengthen the connections in our life,” Murthy said. 

The upshot of Murthy’s commentary is that it’s critical for institutions, workplaces and individuals to improve inclusion by making sure they’re reflecting the value of marginalized groups, like people with intellectual disabilities.

For healthcare marketers, bolstering the messaging around intellectual disabilities — whether for mental health care or clinical care — ultimately boils down to bringing people with those disabilities to the table.

Bazzano noted that having spaces open to people with disabilities isn’t necessarily enough to make them more welcoming. She added that having some communication requirements like plain language, doesn’t always equate to meaningful messaging. This dynamic can inhibit the distribution of information about chronic diseases, like diabetes, to people with intellectual disabilities — who have twice the rate of diabetes than the general population.

“The first thing is to have people with intellectual disabilities as part of your focus groups, because it’s a large portion of the population,” Bazzano stressed. “It’s at least 1 to 3% of the population – and if you look at all developmental disabilities, it’s 10%. Having them be a part of your focus groups, your needs assessments and your message testers is important.”

She continued: “When you do this kind of marketing towards people with intellectual disabilities or developmental disabilities, you have to make sure that it actually works for them, so that it actually changes and improves their health. That’s the true measure of inclusion.”