Learning Disabilities and Mental Health (A Comprehensive Guide)

Learning disabilities are quite common in the population and a number of people suffering from learning disabilities have multiple and often considerable mental health issues.

Alongside it, their health needs are often neglected, overlooked, or even sometimes attributed incorrectly towards their learning disabilities which results in them suffering more.

This can be lessened up by supporting them and taking care of them right away.

Achieving equality in social care, education and health do not give us the right to assume that one size fits all, as every individual has its own specific needs and these rights have to be adjusted accordingly to accommodate the disabilities of an individual as mentioned in Equality Act 2010. 

Also, raising awareness about mental health or disability is as important as learning about them.

So, to raise awareness for mental health, you can use mental health hashtags on your social media.

In this article, we will discuss learning disabilities and mental health.

NICE Guidelines for Children with Learning Disabilities and Mental Health

While the guidelines mentioned by National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) are mostly related to the individuals with learning disabilities, these guidelines have further been used to highlight the reasonable adjustments needed so that the individuals having mental health problems alongside their learning disabilities receive equality of support and care.

These guidelines consider the following areas: 

  • Support, care, and recovery of individuals with learning disabilities who are suffering from other mental health problems
  • Anticipatory care with the sole purpose of prevention of mental health issues.
  •  Associated support for paid carers and family members. Individuals having learning disabilities also deserve to be equally respected and valued. This respect and value will build the foundations of an inclusive society full of diversity, with all of its citizens reaping the benefits. Individuals with learning disabilities are also human at first and they should be provided with every support and care that is needed for them. Sometimes, providing them with an additional term, consideration, or label can be helpful for the individual to get better access to the appropriate support and care. Children with learning disabilities are vulnerable to many mental issues, In this article, we will discuss Learning disabilities and mental health. 

Learning disabilities and Mental Health

In the report issued by the Department of Health, Valuing People: a new strategy for learning disability for the 21st Century, have used the term ‘learning disabilities’ specifically when the following three criteria are fulfilled:

  • A significantly reduced ability to comprehend simple, new or complex information and difficulty in learning new skills (impaired intelligence)
  • A reduced ability to be able to cope independently on his own (impaired social functioning)
  • If started before adulthood, leaving behind a lasting effect and hindering the development of the child’s learning abilities.

The term learning disabilities is also known as ‘intellectual disabilities’ inside the academic literature.

Individuals have either learning disabilities by birth or these are developed during the early days of childhood or during infancy which results in the development of the child and is long-lasting.

Individuals with learning disabilities often need additional care and support with learning at their schools and often with other daily activities too, throughout their lives.

As it is more difficult for them to learn new skills, understand new ways, remember new things so they might need support in managing everyday tasks, related to communication, being aware of risks, and might need help to live independently.

There can be a number of causes for learning disabilities and the specific cause of learning disability in an individual is often unknown.

A learning disability is often confused with mental health problems.

Anyone can be affected by mental health problems during any time period of their life and these issues can be cured with the appropriate treatment method whereas in the case of learning disability it is a completely different case.

Learning disabilities in an individual usually develop during their childhood or early infancy age or they have them by birth. 

Different research and studies suggest that individuals with learning disabilities have a higher ratio of mental health problems as compared with individuals without them.

According to some studies, the rate of mental health problems is approximately double in individuals with learning disabilities than the ones without it.

Depending on the criteria used for diagnostics, the ranges of estimated prevalence for mental health disorders falls in between 15-52%.  

  Learning disabilities and Mental Health: Risk factors 

There are multiple risk factors involved which can result in individuals with learning disabilities to experience poor mental health conditions.

Among these, four types of risk factors are more common, which are discussed as follows:

  • Genetics and Biology may end up increasing vulnerability to different mental health issues
  • There is a large number of negative incidents in the life
  • Access to a few coping skills and resources
  • Impact taken because of the attitude of others.

Every individual is unique and different in their own way, but individuals with learning disabilities are especially vulnerable to negative life incidents as they may be lacking the mechanism to cope with such events and incidents in life.

The accumulation of such negative life events throughout their life may end in high levels of depression and stress which further increases the risk for the development of a mental health problem.

This accumulation of negative things can also result in behavioral changes such as irritability, agitation, and distress.

Biological Factors: Many Biological and physical health issues contribute to mental health issues in children with learning disabilities.

E.g. Pain, Physical ill health, different types of medications and Some genetic syndromes are associated with specific mental health problems (e.g. Prader Willi syndrome) (Joint Commissioning Panel for Mental Health, 2013).

Lack of  Psychological resources:  Lack of psychological resources in children with learning disabilities like low resilience, reduced coping skills are associated with depression and anxiety in children with learning disabilities. 

When children with learning disorders experience negative life events, they feel burden stress which in turn makes them vulnerable to mental health issues. 

People’s negative attitude: Children with learning disabilities also experience stigma and discrimination in their lives.

Both stigma and discrimination can be internalized and make individuals with learning disabilities vulnerable to psychological distress. 

 Learning Disabilities and Mental Health: Why a Higher Risk?

  • There are certain aspects of learning disabilities that make people with learning disabilities vulnerable to many mental health problems. Due to delays in the diagnosis of learning disabilities, these children often experience school failure due to a lack of an intensive and individualized plan. Children with learning disabilities are vulnerable to emotional disturbances, anxiety, and depression from a very early age of nine or ten. They also experience anger issues, low self-esteem, and guilt due to failure in academics. 
  • .As, Certain learning disabilities are linked with perceptual deficits e.g. misinterpreting verbal cues, body language, and facial expressions. These perceptual deficits lead to disturbed social interactions. Impulsivity and poor social skills in turn lead to social withdrawal and social conflict. 
  • Children with learning disabilities also experience bullying behaviours in schools and peers. Being bullied is also related to low self-esteem and depression.
  • Failure in school might lead to the dissociation of children from school settings, which might result in the teen or adolescent with learning disabilities who does not receive proper academic services and supports getting involved in alcohol, tobacco and drugs. 
  • School drop-outs are strongly linked to functional illiteracy with the teens and youngsters who drop out early having a higher ratio of getting involved in eventful incarceration and illegal activities and are likely to become teen mothers and fathers. Risky pregnancies, aggressive, addictive teens, and other antisocial behaviors are linked to ADHD and learning disabilities.

 Learning disabilities and Mental Health:  What is needed to be done 

Mental health issues in children with learning disabilities are always neglected in child psychiatry.

It is considered that treatment of children with learning disabilities is less rewarding.

The prognosis of children with learning disabilities is considered similar to the prognosis of children with intellectual disabilities.

However, there is no scientific evidence that exists so far that children with learning disabilities differ from normal children in quality of still, Still, they experience more common mental health issues. 

It is important to develop equal but differentiated mental health services for children with learning disabilities to reduce mental health issues in them.

The mental health needs of children with learning disabilities should be met. 

The identification of psychiatric disorders and its successful treatment in children suffering from learning disabilities will require different developments that are not mentioned in the national service framework.

The first step in this aspect is to increase the awareness between people of the possibility of the manifestation of psychiatric disorder through training and educating the professionals like teachers, practitioners, disability social workers, who are regularly consulted by the carers.

The second step in this aspect will be to train more skilled professionals in the field of psychiatry to enable them to assess and treat child psychiatric disorders in different individuals and children suffering from learning disabilities.

At the moment, many mental health services are not able to evaluate and treat learning disabilities and mental health problems effectively and there is a considerable variation present in the services that are being offered at present.

Treatment: Learning Disabilities and Mental Health: 

 Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) :  Learning disabilities and Mental Health

Cognitive behaviour therapy is being effectively used for many mental health issues like PTSD, low self-esteem, sexually aggressive behavior etc.

It has also shown effectiveness for mental health issues experienced by children with learning disabilities such as anger, low self-esteem, depression, bipolar depression, irritability, and frustration.  

 Family therapy :  Learning disabilities and Mental Health:

Family therapy is a much-needed intervention for families with children diagnosed with learning disabilities.

Careers often experience stress and burden which affects their caregiving attitude.

Also, information related to mental health issues and behavioural problems of children with learning disabilities can be discussed is awareness sessions of the family therapy  

Interventions:  Learning disabilities and Mental Health

Few studies have also shown the effectiveness of customized and tailored interventions for children with learning disabilities.

Large scale researches for  effective talking interventions are also needed for children with learning disabilities. 

 Medications:  Learning disabilities and Mental Health:

Different types of medications are used to treat mental health issues in children with learning disabilities.

As children with learning disorders are prone to many mental health issues, anti-psychotics, antidepressants, and other psychotropic medications are widely used. 

Antipsychotics are used to  treat psychotic or symptoms or bipolar symptoms in children diagnosed with learning disorders.

However, it is also evident that these medications are also inappropriately prescribed for children with learning disabilities as it was observed that in 2015, approximately 30,000 and 35,000 adults were prescribed psychotropic medication where it was not needed. 

FAQ about Learning Disabilities and Mental Health

Is a learning disability considered a mental health issue? 

Learning disability is a permanent condition that can be developed at any stage of childhood, whereas mental health issues can be developed at any stage of life and not necessarily permanent. 

How many people are diagnosed with learning disabilities also have comorbid mental health issues. 

Approximately 25-40% of children diagnosed with learning disabilities have other comorbid mental health issues 


National Guideline Alliance (UK) (2016): Mental Health Problems in People with Learning Disabilities: Prevention, Assessment, and Management.

https://ldaamerica.org (n.d.):  Mental Health and Learning Disabilities: Why a Higher Risk?

Emily Simonoff,(2005): Children with psychiatric disorders and learning disabilities: Their needs extend beyond the provisions in the national service framework

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