Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Mental health conditions may present differently in people with learning disabilities, charities say

This Mental Health Awareness Week (15-21 May), disability charities are highlighting how mental health disorders disproportionately affect people with a learning disability, yet they often go unnoticed.

Research shows that around a quarter of people with learning disabilities have symptoms of common mental health problems, while one study estimates that more than half (54%) of people with a learning disability have a mental health problem.

The learning disability charity Mencap says there are many possible reasons for this higher prevalence, including that people with a learning disability are more likely to experience deprivation, poverty, and other adverse life events earlier on in life.

They are also at increased risk of social exclusion and loneliness and other people’s negative attitudes towards people with a learning disability.

Diagnostic overshadowing acts as a barrier to mental health support

However, diagnostic overshadowing is a significant barrier that prevents people with learning disabilities from getting the support they need.

This is when healthcare professionals assume that a behaviour is related to a learning disability rather than a real problem. For example, head banging might be seen as a ‘symptom’ of a learning disability, rather than a sign of distress.

Mencap is therefore raising awareness of the services which are available to support people with learning disabilities and their families. The charity offers a friendly family support service which offers one-to-one practical advice and emotional support.

Their support service workers can also signpost people to other services if they suspect an individual needs further assessment or treatment, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, talking therapy, psychodynamic therapy or medication.

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems in people with a learning disability

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness week is anxiety, and the learning disability charity Hft is highlighting how anxiety can negatively impact mental health and wellbeing in people with learning disabilities.

Anxiety disorders have been reported as one of the most common forms of psychological distress for people with learning disabilities, but often, the way people with learning disabilities talk about anxiety is different to how people without a learning disability talk about it.

Learning disabled people may describe physical feelings rather than using words we often associate with anxiety such as ‘anxious’ and ‘worried’.

For example, one of the people Hft supports says when they are anxious or depressed, “it feels like people are going to shoot [them] in the heart with a knife.”

“This is something that has been with me all my life but not something I talk about to any of the people I live with. I normally like to keep that private,” they said.

Angela Burrows, Registered Care Home Manager at the Hft service, says people with learning disabilities therefore need to speak to someone who is a “good listener” to have their feelings heard.

They need to be able to “talk freely about what is making them anxious at any point in time. They just want people to talk to and understand them,” she added.

Ms Burrows says as well as being able to talk openly about how they are feeling, people with learning disabilities need to be “keep busy” to improve their mental health.

Hft encourages this through sewing, gardening and house cleaning, and this year, the government has launched a new campaign to encourage people to get active to improve their mental health.

Government encourages nation to get active to reduce anxiety symptoms

Physical activity is proven to reduce symptoms of anxiety, and as part of the campaign, BAFTA award-winning comedian and actor, Tom Davis, and NHS and TV doctor, Dr Ranj are urging the nation to make the first move for their mental health by getting active.

Dr Singh said: “Anxiety is part of everyday life, and it can help us focus or take extra care when needed, but when it gets too much, it can have a really big impact on how we want to live our lives.

“Physical activity is one of the simplest, but most effective, things we can do to help alleviate anxious feelings, calm racing thoughts, and give us something to distract from negative thinking. Regular physical activity is best, but even a few minutes each day can help. I personally love dancing because some good music instantly lifts my mood!”

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