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Improving mental health care for people with learning disabilities

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Student NT editor Rebecca Hammond asks how we can provide mental health support to people with learning disabilities.

rebecca hammond close up 1

rebecca hammond close up 1

The prevalence of mental health problems among individuals in the learning disability population is more than double that of the general population.

Studies have shown that 40% of individuals with learning disabilities who use learning disability services experience mental health issues.

Worryingly, studies have shown that we are seeing more children being affected by mental health issues, with 36% of children with a learning disability experiencing psychiatric disorders.

Evidence suggests that there are various factors which increase the vulnerability of mental health problems among individuals with learning disabilities. For example, due to biological and genetic factors, individuals with Down’s syndrome are at a greater risk of developing dementia. Scientists argue that this could be in response to people with Down’s Syndrome having an extra chromosome.

Another factor which increases vulnerability is individuals with learning disabilities are less likely to have the coping skills to manage disadvantageous events and tend to have access to fewer resources.

“We are gradually talking more openly about mental health problems”

As a society, despite having a long way to go, we are gradually talking more openly about mental health problems. However, I do question whether we are doing enough to support individuals with learning disabilities who are experiencing mental ill health.

Worryingly, individuals with learning disabilities experience barriers to mental health diagnosis. Diagnostic overshadowing and  communication needs not being met are some of the barriers faced by individuals with learning disabilities.

There are many interventions which can be put in place to support individuals with learning disabilities who are experiencing mental health problems, including cognitive behavioural therapy, psychodynamic therapy, mindfulness, family therapy and positive behaviour support.

Too often we are seeing individuals with learning disabilities being prescribed antipsychotic medication – often documented as for ‘managing challenging behaviour.’ 

“This should be ringing alarm bells for professionals”

There are approximately 35,000 adults with learning disabilities being prescribed antipsychotics, despite the absence of psychiatric illness. This should be ringing alarm bells for professionals and now is the time that we do something about it.

In practice, there is a significant need for professionals to make interventions and mental health care more accessible to individuals with learning disabilities. It is not a case of one size fits all.

Person-centred care plays a big part in what we do. That includes the mental health care which we provide.

As a learning disability student nurse, I have faith in our profession and believe that through improving the education of mental health, making reasonable adjustments and providing a person-centred approach to the care we provide, we can improve mental health care for individuals with learning disabilities.

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