Mental health in people with learning disabilities

Monday saw the launch of Learning Disability Week and this summary of a paper from Alison Giraud-Saunders, Co-Director of the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, highlights the issue of mental health in people with learning disabilities.

Read the full paper (PDF file 156K)

There are around 1 million people with learning disabilities in England and estimates of prevalence of mental health problems vary from 25-40%, depending on the population sampled and the definitions used. Prevalence of anxiety and depression in people with learning disabilities is the same as the general population, yet for children and young people with a learning disability, the prevalence rate of a diagnosable psychiatric disorder is 36%, compared with 8% of those who do not have a learning disability.

People with learning disabilities and their families tell us that they do not get support to think or talk about mental health problems in the same way that they get increasingly with physical health. If a mental health problem presents, for whatever reason, it is more likely to be attributed to their learning disability (diagnostic overshadowing) or classed as challenging behaviour.

We often hear from staff in learning disability services that they are not informed about or encouraged to promote mental health, or to look out for early warning signs of common mental health problems. Worryingly, people with mild to moderate learning disabilities are also at particular risk of falling between the gap of learning disability services and mental health services, as there is often disagreement about which specialist should treat them, with both services denying that the individual meets eligibility criteria.

People persistently comment that access to the full range of mental health interventions for people with learning disabilities is limited and, furthermore, assumptions are often made that they will not benefit from such treatments as ‘talking therapies’, although research and guidance is available on the applicability of CBT and Mindfulness.

The Government’s ‘Valuing People Now’ and ‘No Health Without Mental Health’ policies identify that people with learning disabilities are at an increased risk of mental health problems and that services must address this need. Yet, despite the evidence on prevalence and on good practice, it seems that:

  • There is little attention to promoting mental health amongst people with learning disabilities, their families and frontline staff.
  • There is insufficient attention to identifying early warning signs of common mental health problems.
  • A minority of people with learning disabilities get an annual health check in primary care; of those who do, it is not known how well mental health issues are covered. If people with learning disabilities, their families and staff are not alert to mental health problems, this may affect the detection rate via health checks.
  • 'Boundary’ problems between secondary mental health and learning disability services persist.

We are now left asking the question – “what would make a difference”?

Published 23 June 2011 |
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There are 5 comments.

  • more openness between the carers and families!!! families should get the opportunity to speak with the professionals ie physchiatrists and GP's, we know more about our loved ones than the paid carers in the homes!!!

    Anonymous 04 July 2011
  • There is a significant gap when users move from children to adult services

    Anonymous 26 July 2011
  • The homes should communicate appointments to families Appointement frequently attended by the least qualified or the one "able to spare" There are less professionals and they are always in arush There are few in-patient facilities- frequently need to commit a crime to get a service Drugs make patients fat and are dished out because of lack of support or time Adult services seem to forget a large proprtion of service users- left to just get on GP's will be less keen to do the health checks after changes to QoF (more income from other sources and not deemed as much as a priority) Valuing people now- 12 yrs on, moody teenager and can't be bothered

    Anonymous 04 September 2011
  • This is all true people with learning disabilities and mental health problems like myself are in the middle and cannot cross boundarys like myself i am fighting to get help from the mental health team but the learning disabilities team is not listening to me and my mental health problems has gone worse i am just getting ignored and i am just going round in circules

    Tracy Robinson 16 October 2011
  • I agree with the comments already posted and think that there should be more awareness of peoples needs with learning disabilities and associated mental health needs. Often communication difficulties can be a major barrier and not knowing or how to get any help can be problematic. Public and professional recognition should be encouraged.

    Anonymous 28 November 2011
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