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Mental health

People with a learning disability can be more likely to experience poor mental health.

Learning disability is often confused with mental health problems.

Mental health problems can affect anyone at any time and may be overcome with treatment, which is not true of learning disability. You can find out more about the difference between mental health and learning disability here

Evidence suggest that mental health problems may be higher in people with a learning disability than in those without a learning disability.

Some studies suggest the rate of mental health problems in people with a learning disability is double that of the general population (Cooper, 2007; Emerson & Hatton, 2007; NICE, 2016). The estimated prevalence of mental health disorders range from 15-52%, depending on the diagnostic criteria used (Cooper et al., 2007; Emerson & Hatton, 2007; Hatton et al. 2017; McCarron et al. 2017).

There are many reasons why people with a learning disability are more likely to experience poor mental health.

Four types of risk factor are discussed below:

  • Biology and genetics may increase vulnerability to mental health problems
  • A higher incidence of negative life events
  • Access to fewer resources and coping skills
  • The impact of other people’s attitudes
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Every person is different, but people with a learning disability may be particularly vulnerable to negative life events and might not have the mechanisms for coping with these.

The accumulation of negative life events over the life course results in higher levels of stress, which can increase risk of developing mental health problems (Bond et al., 2019). 

This can result in changes in behaviour such as distress, irritability and agitation (NICE, 2016).

Biological factors - Pain, physical ill health and taking multiple types of medication can all contribute to poor mental health (Joint Commissioning Panel for Mental Health 2013; NICE, 2016). Some genetic syndromes are associated with specific mental health problems (e.g. Prader Willi syndrome) (Joint Commissioning Panel for Mental Health, 2013).

Negative life events - People with a learning disability may be more likely to experience deprivation, poverty, abuse and other negative life events earlier on in life (NICE, 2016).

Fewer resources – Lack of social support and reduced coping skills are associated with depression and anxiety in people with a learning disability (Austin et al., 2018; Bond et al., 2019). This can increase the stress and burden felt by people with a learning disability when they are exposed to negative life events (Bond et al., 2019).

Other people’s attitudes – Stigma and discrimination can become internalised, which can result in psychological distress (Ali et al., 2015; Pelleboer-Gunnink et al., 2019). Learn more about stigma and discrimination here.

Why mental health problems are not always recognised

  • There is a gap between mental health services and learning disability services.
  • Assessments to detect mental health problems in people with a learning disability are not always well developed
  • When symptoms presented by someone with a learning disability are attributed to their learning disability, rather than the true problem
  • Staff supporting people with a learning disability “are likely to use a challenging behaviour rather than a mental health conceptual framework to understand problematic behaviours”.
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Treating mental health problems in people with a learning disability

Some treatments are:


Research references

Here you'll find full referencing for the Mencap research and statistics pages.

Research references

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