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Mental health and learning disabilities

Mental health problems for people with learning disabilities are often overlooked and can be hard to diagnose. For this reason, there is a lack of clarity about how common mental health problems are for people with learning disabilities.

One study has suggested this may be as high as 54 per cent (Cooper et al, 2007), and children with learning disabilities can be up to 4.5 times more likely to have mental health needs (Emerson et al, 2007).

People with learning disabilities often experience more risk factors to mental illness, such as:

  • unemployment
  • low socio-economic status
  • limited social networks
  • low levels of activity
  • life long conditions
  • past experiences of trauma and abuse
  • biological factors
  • limited coping skills.

People may not have the communication abilities to describe their symptoms. Presentations that may be indicative of a mental health problem can be attributed as part of their learning disability. There can be concerns about the labels that people with learning disabilities have, and adding mental illness labels may be seen as a negative thing. Often diagnosis will rely on people that know the person well to identify changes in presentation.

Talking therapies, like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, can be effective in treating mental health problems for people with learning disabilities, but they will often need a significant amount of adaptation to simplify the language used and the cognitive processes requires. Behavioural interventions, such as behaviour activation, can be effective too if designed around the persons needs.

There can sometimes be conflict between mental health and learning disability services regarding which service is best positioned to meet the mental health needs of people with learning disabilities. The Green Light Toolkit is a recognised tool for auditing service support for people with learning disabilities and mental health needs.



Cooper, S.A., Smiley, E., Morrison, J., Williamson, A., & Allan, L. (2007). Mental ill-health in adults with intellectual disabilities: Prevalence and associated factors. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 190, 27–35.

Emerson, E., & Hatton, C. (2007). Mental health of children and adolescents with intellectual disabilities in Britain. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 191(6), 493–499.


Cheshire and Wirral Partnership, NHS Foundation Trust. Easy read guides

NICE guideline (2016) Mental health problems in people with learning disabilities: prevention, assessment and management

NDTi (National Development Team for Inclusion) (2017) Green Light Toolkit: Mental Health Services and Support for People with Autism and People with Learning Disabilities

Page last updated - 20/02/2024