Learning Disability & Mental Ill-Health

“People with learning disabilities have an increased likelihood of developing mental ill health, with figures ranging from 25 to 40 per cent”.

(Hatton 2002)

What is a Learning Disability?

The term ‘learning disability’ refers to a large group of people who have a wide range of different abilities and needs. A learning disability is a lifelong condition, which affects about 1.5 million people (2 per cent of the population) in the United Kingdom (DOH, 2001).

Learning disability is often present from the early stages in a person’s life, generally occurring at conception, during pregnancy, at birth or shortly after birth. There are many possible causes of learning disability, including infections or accidents during pregnancy, complications at birth and trauma in infancy. Learning disability is also sometimes associated with different types of syndromes, which are caused by genetic factors. The most commonly associated syndromes are Down’s syndrome and Fragile X syndrome.

A learning disability affects a person’s level of intellectual and cognitive functioning and sometimes their physical development. A person with a learning disability may have greater than average difficulty in learning new skills, or in coping independently. They may learn at a slower pace and sometimes find it difficult to carry out tasks such as using money, reading and writing. In childhood, difficulties in learning are often described as ‘developmental delay’. There are useful ways of enabling development including ‘functional learning’ and approaches that include the whole family (Stroh, K., Robinson, T., Proctor, A. (2008) Every Child Can Learn: Using Learning Tools and play to help children with developmental delay). The Judith Trust assumes that wherever there are learning problems there are also emotional and social problems, perhaps both for the person with the learning disability and for parents, siblings and others involved.

Like everyone else, people with a learning disability have different skills and abilities. With appropriate support, tailored to build on their strengths and address their needs, people with a learning disability will have the opportunity to develop skills.

What is Mental Ill-Health?

It is difficult to find an agreed definition of mental ill-health. However, we look to a statement in No health without mental health (DOH, 2011):(see publications)

‘The phrase ‘mental health problem’ is used as an umbrella term to describe the full range of diagnosable mental illnesses and disorders, including personality disorder.

Mental health problems may be more or less common, may be acute or longer lasting and may vary in severity. They manifest themselves in different ways at different ages and may (for example in children and young people) present as behavioural problems.

Some people object to the use of terms such as ‘mental health problems’ on the grounds that they medicalise ways of thinking and feeling and do not acknowledge the many factors that can prevent people from reaching their potential. The Judith Trust recognises these concerns and the stigma attached to mental ill health’.

A learning disability is not the same as a mental ill-health. People develop mental ill-health throughout their lives and many people with mental ill-health can overcome these problems over time and with support. A learning disability is not an illness and cannot be ‘cured’.

Sometimes a person’s ability to cope with day-to-day life is put under great strain. They may not be able to function as they usually would or relate to others as they normally would. There is a wide range of mental ill-health. Symptoms can vary dramatically in severity and intensity. For example, one individual with a learning disability may develop mild depression following a bereavement, and experience feelings of sadness and low mood, but may still continue their usual activities, possibly with less pleasure. In contrast, another person suffering a bereavement may have great difficulty in functioning, becoming withdrawn, not eating or sleeping and may need extra care and support for a period of time. But sometimes mental illnesses are not reactive in this sense – they occur without being able to pin point any catalyst and may last a life-time or just for a few weeks. Psychiatrists identify the range of such mental health problems as illnesses which can be treated with drugs and with talking therapies. People with all kinds of mental health problems experience significant changes in the way they think, their emotions and the way they behave. (Hardy, S., Kramer,R., Holt, G., Woodward, P., Chaplain, E., Janjua, A (eds.) (2010)Supporting Complex Needs: A practical guide for support staff working with people with a learning disability who have mental health needs).