Recognising people with learning disabilities on World Mental Health Day

On Wednesday we marked World Mental Health Day, an initiative that started twenty years ago with the aim of raising public awareness about mental health issues and promoting discussion of mental disorders and their treatment.

Our sister organisation, the Mental Health Foundation has played a large part in shifting public opinion through its research and high impact public campaigns to ensure that open discussion of mental health is no longer quite the taboo it used to be.

What we need to recognise is that people with learning disabilities experience mental health problems too. In fact, they are more likely to develop mental health problems when compared to the general population. At least one in four people experience a mental health problem at some point in their life, yet studies in people with learning disabilities report prevalence rates of between 20.1% to 40.9%. We have been addressing this issue for over ten years, and it’s something we feel very passionate about.

In 2002 we launched the results of a year-long UK wide inquiry addressing the mental health needs of young people with learning disabilities called Count Us In. This led to numerous other programmes of work, including commissioning the University of Lancaster to undertake research on the prevalence rates of mental health in children and young people with learning disabilities. They reported a prevalence rate of 36%, compared with 8% of children and young people who did not have a learning disability. These young people were also 33 times more likely to be on the autistic spectrum and were much more likely than others to have emotional and conduct disorders.

More recently we have been looking at the impact of mainstream mental health on people with learning disabilities. The ‘No health without mental health’ strategy and implementation frameworks made several references to people with learning disabilities. In particular, it highlighted the importance of mental health services for people with learning disabilities and autism to ensure that mainstream services were inclusive to this group and that staff in these services had appropriate skills and could provide reasonable adjustments to meet the individual needs of this group of people. Now, a year after the publication of the strategy, the Government has issued an accompanying Implementation Framework that aims to translate the strategy’s ideals into concrete actions on a local level.

The new framework pays very little regard to people with learning disabilities, which is a great shame as the strategy showed great promise. It does not single out people with learning disabilities, but they are seen as being part of a group of people more vulnerable to developing mental health problems, alongside other groups with particular mental health needs such as homeless people, offenders, certain BME groups, veterans, looked after children and young people.

There appears to be an absence of specific actions to improve access to mainstream mental health support, or advice on how to make reasonable adjustments when working with people with learning disabilities and autism, despite being mentioned in the strategy. Whilst there is funding to increase the number of people accessing evidence based therapies, we have anecdotal evidence that suggests people with learning disabilities are missing out on centrally funded initiatives, such as the Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme. Together with Kings College University, we are developing work that will provide a better understanding of the barriers experienced by people with learning disabilities and support the development of effective intervention models that will promote better access to IAPT services for this group.

Let’s hope that in the next twenty years there is a great deal more evidence around effective interventions for people with learning disabilities and mental health and that mainstream policy really does have an impact on everyone.