Promoting mental health for people with learning disabilities

Our mental health is something we all need to take care of. But, for those with learning disabilities, it can be particularly important to do so. Joanna Grace is a sensory engagement and inclusion specialist, author, trainer, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Here, she explains some of the ways in which mental health can be improved for anyone with a learning disability.

People with profound and multiple learning disabilities are at increased risk of mental ill health. Significantly so. In the general population, around 10% of us are mentally ill at any one time. Within the population of people who have learning disabilities, this rises to 40%. Studies also indicate that the more severely disabled you are the more at risk there is of mental ill health.

Joanna GraceThe majority of my work at The Sensory Projects focuses on people with profound and multiple learning disabilities and their rates of mental illness are thought to be more than 80%. Worse still is the fact that often their needs go unrecognised.

Shockingly, even if they are acknowledged, they are generally not eligible for services from mental health care services. This is because support is given based on who can access it, so if you do not use traditional communication methods, such as spoken language or sign language, then you can’t get access.

Improving mental health if you have mental disabilities

I run a CPD-accredited event called Sensory Engagement for Mental Wellbeing. It looks into what we know about mental health for people with profound disabilities and shares simple sensory strategies that we can use to promote mental health.

As with physical health, little and often – such as eating an apple instead of crisps or taking the stairs instead of the escalator – does more than intermittent big things, such as eating cake all week and then doing a high-intensity workout at the weekend.

As we look to support people’s mental health, we need to think of what those little and often things might be, rather than relying on having to undo the damage done after years of neglect of someone’s mental health.

The wellbeing day holds a great list of strategies. Here are two that you can use to bring hope to happiness to the life of someone with a learning disability.

1. Including a reveal

When we support someone who has profound and multiple learning disabilities we get to know what their favourite resources are. From there we give them these resources to explore and enjoy. In doing this, we promote their happiness and wellbeing.

Adding a positive reveal to these exchanges can provide you with a chance to teach that person hope. Hope is a counter to depression and fear. Allow me to explain.

Consider how a person with a profound cognitive disability experiences the world. They are not able to elaborately reflect on their situation and they may not be able to access their memories. In the version of their life, where sometimes they have the resource they enjoy but sometimes they don’t, the world is either good or bad.

So, when you bring them that resource, but for example bring it to them inside the cardboard box it is kept in, or hide it beneath a cloth, you show them the boring everyday world without that thing they love in it, and you show them that world-changing, and revealing the wonderful thing.

It is that experience of witnessing the world changing from dull to wonderful that is the start point for hope.

If you regularly present the person you support with reveals, you begin to teach them to look at the world around them and to not be resigned to the grey dullness of it. They will begin to think: “What if!” “Maybe?” “Could there be?” “Amidst this blandness might be something wonderful!” In doing that you lay the foundations for hope.

I share reveals in all sorts of different ways with my friends with profound and multiple learning disabilities, from very simple ones where resources are ‘hidden’ inside clear containers, to more elaborate ones when they have to be hunted for in a box of paper shreddings.

2. Letting someone do things for themselves

This insight was taught to me by my son when he was two and a half years old. He had done something wonderful and, as those were the days before he had discovered chocolate, I was rewarding him with a small pot of Fromage Frais. At that point in his life, this was the height of pleasure.

He was sitting at his small table, waiting for his reward, delighted with himself. I placed the yoghurt down in front of him and began to peel back the lid. He suddenly wailed “NO!” As he had been so good and so deserving of this tiny treat, I ignored the out of character shouting and continued to whip the lid off.

Although it only took seconds, by the time I had completed the action he was hysterical with rage. So much so that he stood up, grabbed the uneaten pot of yoghurt, stormed out of the room and threw it in the bin.

I was staggered, not understanding what on earth could have possessed him to throw away with such vigour the treat that, at that time, his life was about. When he returned to the room, he explained through gulping waves of tears what had been the problem. “I, can, [gulp, sob, gasp] take, the, lid [wobbly lip, snort, whimper] off, myself, mummy!”

He was two and, when you are two, there are not many things you can do for yourself. I had offended him by doing one of the few things he had just learned to do for himself. He was willing to sacrifice his prize in order to make the point to me.

When you have profound and multiple learning disabilities, there are even fewer things you can do for yourself. Perhaps you can only do part of some things. You can lift your arm to put your coat on, but cannot feed it through the sleeve. You can indicate that you want an item, but you cannot get it for yourself.

We who support people with profound and multiple learning disabilities should fight for their right to do every single thing that they can do for themselves. And we should police ourselves strictly to ensure that we never make that call to do it for them because it will be quicker.

Is our goal to support their health and wellbeing, or are we competing in some kind of race? If our aim is the former, then it does not matter how slowly life proceeds. Life in slow motion can be happy and healthy. Life in a race could damage wellbeing all around.

By Joanna Grace

For more resources to help people with learning disabilities, visit The Sensory Projects website, follow her @Jo3Grace on Twitter and like her on TheSensoryProjects’ Facebook page. Here’s how you can join one of her mental health and wellbeing events.

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