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

Access to mental health services for people with learning disabilities needs improvement

Dan PartonA report this week by the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities (FPLD) has called for people with learning disabilities to have equality of access to mental health services – and this is long overdue.

It is well known that people with learning disabilities are more likely to develop mental health issues than the general population – up to three times more likely, according to the FPLD’s report, Feeling Down: Improving the mental health of people with learning disabilities – yet many still struggle to access services that can help them.

While this may not be surprising – in general people with learning disabilities face inequalities in all aspects of healthcare – it does nonetheless highlight a problem that is all too often ignored and needs to be challenged.

The main problems with accessing mental health services cited by people with learning disabilities have a familiar ring to them as they are the same as those some experience in other healthcare services. For example, professionals see the learning disability, not the person; they aren’t believed or listened to, and information is not provided to them in an accessible format.

Baroness Sheila Hollins hit the nail on the head – as she usually does – by saying the report was a “wake-up call” for policy makers, commissioners, regulators, professional bodies and providers.

Further reading: Healthcare equality still a long way off

Christine Koulla Burke from the FPLD, and author of the report, added: “It is time that commissioners, Health and Wellbeing Boards and CCGs [clinical commissioning groups] took responsibility for equality in practice and delivery of services to ensure accessible, inclusive and valuable psychological support is available for all individuals with learning disabilities.”

The report also recommends compulsory training learning disabilities for all GPs, psychiatrists and psychotherapists as well as NHS England auditing the roll-out of inclusive mental health programmes such as Improving Access to Psychological Therapies, dementia screening and information prescriptions, to check that they are delivering inclusive services.

It is hard to argue against this. Services are lacking and those that are there could become more inclusive of people with learning disabilities. Doing this will not only help people to recover more quickly, it could also end up saving money because the person might avoid the need for more acute – and expensive – services down the line.

But despite the – in my opinion – strong arguments for this, whether it happens is another matter. Commissioners and CCGs have their own financial constraints, as users of and professionals in learning disability and mental health services are already more than aware of, and not all of them have the expertise in learning disability that may be required to commission the services.

Having said that, that is no reason not to try. Reports such as this highlight the issues and now it has to be ensured that these are given prominence so that commissioners, CCGs et al are aware of the need for such services and can commission them. If we are to get parity between mental and physical health services – and for people with learning disability with the rest of the population – this has to happen.

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