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Mental health tourism: the ignored aspects of disability tourism

Mental health tourism: the ignored aspects of disability tourism
Author: Charlotte Riordan
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Abstract: This discussion paper aims to begin to tackle mental health tourism- or lack of it. By comparing to the well research disabled tourism, the paper aims to bring to light the fact that mental health tourism is under researched, undefined and under-appreciated.

Keywords: Mental health, mental health tourism, tourism, disability, disabled, wellness tourism, social tourism, health tourism.

Mental health is not a new occurrence but one that has followed mankind undetected for many years. Tourism again is not a new phenomenon, in 2016 there are many niche markets that adapt to different need of different people. Conversely, the combination of these two well-known terms does not seem to have occurred- disability tourism is a well research topic however there seems to be a distinct gap in the literature for mental health and tourism. Therefore, this report aims to: briefly outline mental illness, discuss mental health as a form of disability tourism, and outline the uses of wellness tourism for people with mental health issues.

Mental illness tourism is a highly undiscussed topic, it is important to first attempt to outline what defines mental illness, who suffers from it and general statistics from the UK. The NHS define mental illnesses as several things, including but not limited to: Addictions, Anorexia, ADHD, Autism, Bipolar, Depression, Insomnia, OCD, Schizophrenia, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Stress, And Self-Harm (NHS Inform, 2016). Whilst mental health issues start out as simply that, an issue or problem, they can develop into a more serious condition. 58% of disease in the UK is a mental health issue, 25% of the UK will experience a mental health disorder (Mental Health Foundation, 2015). Considering that mental health classes as a disability, tourism researchers have significantly under researched the motivation for people with mental illnesses to travel. Whilst there is a lot of literature available on the motivations, ambitions and subsequently the accessibly issues for physically disabled people, there is a significant lack of information, research or even acknowledgement of mental illnesses and the tourism community. The purpose of this report, therefore, is to take a brief look into the motivations of people with mental health relationship with tourism.

Blichfeldt and Nicolaisen (2011) identify that disabled tourism is a wide spectrum- it is an umbrella term for many diseases and disadvantages, form paralysis to depression. The article highlights in its introduction that whilst disability tourism is still within its infancy, and so the need for more research is. Whilst this particular work goes on to investigate the struggles of mobility based disabilities in tourism, it’s one of several that identify the mental health is an issue. Yet, like others picks a more popularised disability, that has been discussed several times- over one such as a mental illness like OCD- to investigate. Shaw and Coles (2004) highlight how the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 drew attention to the fairness of treatment of disabled people in the tourism industry. Bizjak et al (2010) discuss how in the last decade the attitude towards disability and tourism has changed, and disability tourism has come to light. Whilst a valid point, the article goes on to discuss attitudes towards the physically disabled, without touching upon mental health tourism.

A recent phenomenon that could be applicable to people with mental health issues is social tourism. Whilst this is discussed by several authors most of them still focus upon the physical disability. Minnaert, Maitland and Miller (2006) define social tourism as the act of inclusion: tourism for everyone- accessibility for all and incorporating different believes in order for everyone to be able to enjoy tourism (disabled or otherwise). Mental health is an up and coming segment within the tourism segment (Filep and Bereded-Samuel, 2012). Several countries are actively promoting the use of tourism to improve mental wellbeing, with Australia, USA, and the UK being pioneers. Smith and Kelly (2006) further support this, arguing that wellness tourism has a direct link to mental health issues such as depression. Because depression is one of the highest global diseases, wellness tourism is promoted as a cure; taking a break and working on self-improvement will help with depression (Smith and Kelly, 2006). Smith and Puczkó (2008) summarise wellness tourism as the act of travel with health at the heart of the purpose for travel, in a leisure based setting. Lehto, Brown, Chen and Morrison (2006) argue that niche markets within the wellness sector are already appearing, whilst not a new phenomenon- for example yoga tourism is an up and coming trend, which actively promotes the reduction of stress (a recognised mental health issue).

Overall mental health as a tourism subject has been largely overlooked. Whilst it is classified as a disability, it has not been researched in within the topic. Most scholars opt for a physical disability rather than focusing on mental health- which is unusual as it has been identified by many as going hand in hand. Disabled tourism has been a phenomenon that has taken off in the last century, and looks to continue to spread, hopefully including mental health.


Blichfeldt, B.S. and Nicolaisen, J., (2011) Disabled travel: not easy, but doable. Current Issues in Tourism, 14(1), .79-102.

Lehto, X.Y., Brown, S., Chen, Y. and Morrison, A.M. (2006) Yoga tourism as a niche within the wellness tourism market. Tourism Recreation Research, 31(1), 25-35.

Shaw, G. and Coles, T. (2004). Disability, holiday making and the tourism industry in the UK: a preliminary survey. Tourism Management, 25(3), 397-403.