It’s time to talk about mental health and intellectual disability

For intellectual disability and mental health, the stats aren’t good. People with intellectual disability are 3 – 5 times more likely to have a mental illness than the general population. In NSW, 40% of people with intellectual disability also have a mental illness.

Sadly, mental illness in people with intellectual disability often goes unrecognised, undiagnosed and untreated.

It’s time we shine a spotlight on to mental health, in the hopes that it brings a bit of clarity to people and families.

What should you look for?

Mental illness in people with an intellectual disability can present a little differently to the general population (but doesn’t always).

The most obvious symptom of mental illness in a person with intellectual disability is a behaviour that ‘doesn’t quite fit’ with how they usually act. Often, it can look like ‘attention seeking’.

Examples of behaviour that should be looked in to are:

  • withdrawal
  • distress
  • acting out
  • mood swings
  • confusion
  • tiredness
  • changes in sleep patterns
  • low motivation
  • self-harm.

What should you do?

If you suspect someone close to you might be experiencing a mental illness, the best thing you can do is, listen, be there, and encourage them to seek help.

Help is available, and some channels you may wish to look in to can include their GP, their case manager, a psychiatrist, psychologist or counsellor.

People may appreciate or need the support to receive help. You might even need to be there to help describe the behaviour changes you may have noticed, if appropriate. It might also be a good idea to keep some records of how often the periods of change occur and when (again, only if appropriate).

It’s important to note that if you are supporting someone to receive help, you are doing just that – supporting. At the end of the day, it is about them and their treatment. There are many different ways you can be there for someone as they seek help, and it’s important to listen to, and seek guidance from the person experiencing a mental illness and their health workers for the best ways that you can help.

Mental illness and the NDIS – how does it work?

The NDIS is designed to work alongside mainstream services such as health and education and to provide people with a disability supports to access them. It is not designed to replace them. Mental health services will remain the primary responsibility of the health system in each state. So, for example, people with early signs of a psychiatric condition should still utilise the health system in the first instance, so that they can be diagnosed and the condition immediately managed.

However, the National Disability Insurance Scheme comes into play when mental illness results in a psychosocial disability. ‘Psychosocial disability’ is a term used when someone’s mental illness impacts on their ability to participate fully in life – work, education, community participation. Impairments can include a loss of ability to function, think clearly, experience full physical health, and manage the social and emotional aspects of their life.

There are a number of criteria for accessing the NDIS with a psychosocial disability:

  • Firstly, everyone entering the NDIS has to meet the access criteria for age, location etc.
  • Your psychiatric disability is likely to be permanent
  • You are unable to take part effectively in daily life without the assistance of others
  • You are likely to require support from the NDIS over your lifetime.

Evidence will need to be provided by a qualified medical professional about the severity of the condition and whether it’s likely to be permanent, plus whether the condition has already been addressed in the mainstream mental health system. If you don’t already have these, you will be asked to provide any relevant assessments in your planning meetings with the NDIA.

Please note: people with early signs of a psychiatric condition should still utilise the health system in the first instance, so that they can be diagnosed and the condition immediately managed.

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