Learning disabilities and mental health conditions are not the same thing.
Mencap is a charity that supports people with a learning disability. They say that (unlike mental health conditions) learning disabilities cannot ‘be overcome with treatment’. A learning disability involves ‘a reduced intellectual ability [that] makes it harder for someone to learn, understand or do things’.
Everyone has mental health – and anyone can experience a mental health problem. Some people have both a learning disability and a mental health condition, but they don’t always go together.
Why people with a learning disability are more likely to experience poor mental health
We don’t know exactly why people with a learning disability are more likely to experience poor mental health.
For some people, biological factors relevant to their learning disability are associated with a mental health condition. For example, they might be pain or experience poor physical health, which affects their wellbeing. They may take medication that affects their mental health. And some genetic conditions that cause people to have a learning disability are linked to specific mental health problems too.
In our posts about the causes of depression, we talked about how difficult childhood experiences and life events can affect someone’s mental health. People with a learning disability may be more likely to experience negative life events earlier in life, including things like bullying and poverty.
People with a learning disability also face a lot of stigma and discrimination. When someone is not given equal opportunities, or often gets left out, it might affect the way they see and think about themselves and harm their mental health.
It can also be harder for people with a learning disability to access things like social support or ways of managing difficult thoughts, feelings, and experiences. This means that difficult and upsetting events can often have an even bigger impact on someone with a learning disability.
Mental health support for people with a learning disability
Because people with a learning disability can find it harder to get mental health support, mental health services and learning disability services often need to work together to understand someone’s symptoms.
It’s important that all of us (including friends and family members, as well as medical professionals) try not to assume symptoms are because of someone’s learning disability and to think about the person’s mental health too.
The good news is that people with a learning disability who also have a mental health condition can find talking therapies and/or medication helpful. As always, different people will find different things work best for them.
The Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities has made an interactive, easy read booklet to help people with a learning disability with their mental health. It has information about mental health, as well as tools to help people communicate about their mental health and access support, and resources for GPs.
Over-medication and STOMP
Sometimes, medications designed to help people with a mental health condition (or designed to help with sleep or epilepsy) are given to people with a learning disability (or autism) when they don’t have the relevant health condition. When these medications aren’t prescribed correctly, they can make people unwell.
A big national project called STOMP has been set up to make sure people have the right information about medication (and alternatives). STOMP will help to make sure that people get the right help when they need it, which might include other support as well as or instead of medication. The NHS website has an easy read leaflet about STOMP.
The Challenging Behaviour Foundation have put together information about medication for family carers of people with a learning disability, autism, or both. Their medication pathway is designed to help family carers make sure that their relative only takes the medication they need (and that they take medication safely).