Social issues

Learning Disability & Mental Ill-Health

Social factors involve our environment and the people in it. They include:

Abuse and exploitation

Abuse, whether it is physical, sexual, emotional or financial, can increase an individual’s vulnerability to mental health problems. We know that abuse often goes unreported, and research suggests that it is more prevalent among people with a learning disability. People with a learning disability may be more dependent and over-trusting of others and this could lead to them being exploited by strangers, and sometimes by family or others well known to them. They may find it harder to protect themselves and may not be able to tell others what has happened. Moreover, people with a learning disability may have difficulty in communicating their experiences and may not be supported through this or given the counselling that they need.

Prejudice and discrimination

Stigma is often attached to having a learning disability. Prejudice and discrimination are part of daily life for many people with a learning disability. It can occur in a wide range of situations including at school, in employment, in community facilities and services.

Culture, spirituality and religion

If cultural, spiritual and religious beliefs are ignored, vulnerability to mental health problems can be increased. See section on spirituality and religion.

Black and minority ethnic communities

People from black and minority ethnic (BME) communities face substantial inequalities, discrimination and disadvantage. This includes poor housing, adverse socio-economic conditions and discrimination in employment, education and health/social care services. As well as facing increased vulnerability to mental health problems due to these factors, people from BME communities with a learning disability also experience further discrimination and vulnerability due to race and disability factors. Link to BME research by Judith Trust.

Family issues

The families of people with a learning disability face many challenges, for example they may have to take time off work to look after their child or relative. This is likely to have financial implications.

Parents may be fearful of their son/daughter’s vulnerability and may become overprotective. For example, when their child reaches early adulthood they may treat them as someone much younger. Learning experiences, for example especially around independence and expressing sexuality, may be denied to the individual for fear of possible risks.

People with a learning disability may be dependent on their family well into adulthood and remain under their family’s influence for longer. These situations may cause stress, potentially affecting all members of the family.

People who offend

People with learning disabilities who find themselves in trouble with the law are often discriminated against during their contact with the criminal justice system (police station, courts and prison). Their health and social care needs are often overlooked and there is little proactive support to help individuals return to their local communities, undergo rehabilitation or prevent them from reoffending. All of these factors can have a detrimental effect on the person’s mental health.

Financial disadvantage

Some mental health problems are more common among people with low income. People with a learning disability are amongst the most financially disadvantaged people in the country.

Smaller community networks

Having a limited social network, with a lack of support from other people, is a recognised risk factor for mental health problems, especially depression.


People with a learning disability are one of the most excluded groups in our society. This includes living in institutions and not being able to use mainstream services. A recent survey that was commissioned by the government found that people with a learning disability were often excluded, for example living in poor and deprived areas, having poor health, a lack of employment, education and voting opportunities (Emerson et al.,2005).Please click here to read about the Judith Trust’s Inclusion Campaign.


(Hardy, S., Kramer, R., Holt, G., Woodward, P., Chaplin, 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)

The Judith Trust would like to thank Turning Point and the Estia Centre for allowing us to use this information.