Mental health

All of us experience challenges to our emotional well-being at some stage in our lives, with one in four of us experiencing a problem with our mental health in any one year.

Children and adults with learning disabilities are not exempt from this. Research demonstrates that an estimated 25-40% of people with learning disabilities have mental health problems. Evidence compiled by the Public Health Observatory for Learning Disability shows the following:

  • A prevalence rate of 3% for schizophrenia amongst people with learning disabilities (three times greater than for the general population), with higher rates for people of South Asian origin
  • Levels of anxiety and depression as being similar to those of the general population (though higher in people with Down syndrome).

For children and young people the same source shows the prevalence rate of a diagnosable psychiatric disorder to be 36% in children and adolescents with learning disabilities, as opposed to 8% in those 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 to have emotional and conduct disorders.

Children and young people with learning disabilities are much more likely to live in poverty, to have few friends and to have additional long term health problems and disabilities such as epilepsy and sensory impairments. All of these factors are positively associated with mental health problems.

Mental health in people with complex needs

These problems may be worsened for those with greater support needs, particularly if they are unable to communicate about their feelings or communicate their distress (it may result in this behaviour mistakenly being seen to be challenging).

As a result, changes in emotional wellbeing in children and adults with high support needs may easily be overlooked by those who care for them, particularly if they have high levels of medical needs.

Research by the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities (‘Making Us Count’, 2005) clearly identified that people with profound and multiple learning disabilities do experience mental health problems, often for reasons similar to those of the general population.

However, identifying the signs and symptoms that indicate changes in the emotional and mental wellbeing of people with profound and multiple learning disabilities takes longer, and it is often family members who are best-placed to identify such changes.

Some key factors that often contribute to a change in emotional well-being include physical health, loss and bereavement (this could be a change of support or bus driver who takes the child to school, as well as the loss of a family member), change and transition to adulthood.