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Supporting someone with intellectual disability and mental illness

disability support worker and participant

In Australia, people who live with intellectual disability are 2.5 times more likely to develop a mental illness when compared with the rest of the population. While there are barriers to identifying and treating mental illness in people with disability, learning key facts can be an important first step in providing support.

How does intellectual disability affect mental health?

People with intellectual disability experience the same types of mental illnesses as those without disability. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders and schizophrenia are all examples of mental illnesses that can affect a person with intellectual disability.

However, there are extra challenges that exacerbate poor mental health in populations with intellectual disability. This is due to common barriers that accompany intellectual disability, such as poorer physical health, reduced work opportunities, and difficulties in communication.

Barriers to identifying mental illness in people with intellectual disability

Communication difficulties
Some people with intellectual disability have a hard time expressing their thoughts and feelings. This can make it challenging to spot the signs of poor mental health. However, paying attention to changes in behaviour (e.g. irritability, smiling less, sleep disturbances) can help to overcome communication barriers.

Lack of knowledge about mental health in people with intellectual disability
Unfortunately, people often don’t receive important information about mental health in people also affected by disability. This extends to some healthcare professionals who may lack the experience or training needed to treat people with disability.

Symptoms of poor mental health can be mistakenly attributed to a person’s disability
Signs of poor mental health can also go ignored by those who may attribute symptoms to a person’s disability instead of a potential mental illness. This is more likely to happen if the person providing care doesn’t know the person with disability very well. This is why it can be helpful if a carer or disability worker accompanies the person with disability to a mental health assessment.

Dos and Don’ts of supporting someone with intellectual disability and mental illness

For carers, support workers and healthcare professionals, there are a number of Dos and Don’ts that can assist in providing supports to a person with intellectual disability and mental illness.

DO

  • Remain non-judgemental, show empathy, and offer reassurance
  • Acknowledge their feelings (e.g. ‘I’ve noticed that you seem upset’)
  • Ask open ended questions (e.g. ‘How can I help?’)
  • Use visual aids if needed (e.g. picture communication cards)
  • Give time anchors. Some people with intellectual disability have a hard time relating to time. So rather than asking ‘how have you felt in the last two weeks’; ask ‘how did you feel at [their day activity]’
  • Take changes in behaviour seriously

DON’T

  • Panic or overreact
  • Dismiss or minimise symptoms (e.g. ‘you’re just having a bad day’)
  • Use medical jargon or label signs and symptoms (e.g. ‘Do you have signs of anxiety?’)
  • Use stigmatising language (e.g. crazy)
  • Assume the signs and symptoms of mental illness are a part of a person’s intellectual disability

It’s also important to remember that there are services available that can provide supports for those experiencing mental illness and intellectual disability.
For more information, and to get in touch with our Behaviour and Allied Health Services team, click here.

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