May sees the arrival of Mental Health Week. This makes it a good time to ask whether current mental health support for people with disabilities is proving effective.
The theme of this year’s campaign, Surviving or Thriving, hints at the situation many find themselves in. So what more can be done to improve the mental health of people with disabilities, an alarming one in four of whom will currently have a mental health condition that seriously restricts their quality of life?
Mental health and economic deprivation
We know that figures for people with disabilities who suffer poor mental health are far higher than amongst the general population. In particular, the prevalence of depression and anxiety is significant. These conditions are often linked with persistent, chronic pain, but also have causal links to social isolation, poor employment opportunities and economic insecurity. If any government is serious about ameliorating mental health issues amongst the disabled, there’s a clear argument here for increased funding in initiatives that promote financial independence and better quality of life: the ability, in other words, to thrive with a disability, not just survive.
Problems accessing mental health services
Issues of poor mental health will always be compounded by lack of access to appropriate mental health services, a particularly serious issue for people with learning disabilities. Because of a lack of readily available information, many disabled people have mental health conditions which remain undiagnosed and untreated. Additionally, many families feel they do not get enough support to think about mental health problems, with the focus solely on physical health conditions. Information has to be key, with clear initiatives for ensuring everyone with a disability has access to the support they need.
Confusing mental health and disability
Many disabled people find their mental health issues are often wrongly attributed to their learning disability. Moreover, there are often arguments between organisations, particularly with mild to moderate impairment, over whether treatment should be provided by generic mental health experts or specialist learning disability services. The outcome of this is too often that no treatment is provided at all. More organisational accountability and clearer guidelines are vital in clarifying this anomaly and stand-off.
There is also a disability prejudice in play when it comes to talking therapy treatments. There remains a perception that people with learning difficulties are uniformly incapable of benefiting from these, where instead there needs to be a determination of suitability determined case by case.
These are all issues which need to be examined if disabled people generally, and disabled people with learning disabilities in particular, are to gain equal access to the mental health services currently offered to the wider community.
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