People with intellectual disability: supporting mental wellbeing during COVID-19

For many people with intellectual disability the global pandemic has brought unique challenges, especially in terms of mental wellbeing. Here are some ways to support the mental health of people with intellectual disability during this difficult time.

Intellectual disability in Australia

More than half a million Australians have intellectual disability and most of those people have a severe or profound limitation in 'core' activities of daily living.

According to Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, people with intellectual disability encounter special challenges that differ from people with other types of disabilities in a number of important aspects.

For instance, people with intellectual disability often have difficulty learning and applying knowledge in decision making, as well as difficulty in adjusting to changed circumstances and unfamiliar environments.

The pandemic has unquestionably brought with it changed circumstances, both through increased threat to our physical health and via constantly changing restrictions designed to protect us.

Living with intellectual disability during COVID-19

As the pandemic continues to impact everyday life, taking care of our mental health and wellbeing has never been more important.

This is especially true for people with intellectual disability, for whom the pandemic may have a greater impact on their mental wellbeing than the general population.

Professor Julian Trollor, a neuropsychiatrist and Chair of Intellectual Disability Mental Health at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), explains why.

“This is due, in part, to individual risk factors such as severity of disability, presence of autism spectrum disorder, experience of abuse, age, and pre-existing mental health and behaviours of concern. All of these factors make adjusting to the disruption of routine and adjusting to COVID-19-related risk-reduction strategies – including social distancing – potentially particularly hard for people with intellectual disability,” says Trollor.

“People with intellectual disability may also have difficulty understanding information about COVID-19, including necessary risk-mitigating measures.”

“They may also struggle to put what’s going on into perspective, and have difficulty expressing concerns and accessing appropriate supports at this stressful time,” adds Trollor.

Many people with intellectual disability require support from families, disability support workers and other service providers – and that’s without a global pandemic – says Trollor, who to this point, highlights the importance of caregivers staying up to date with the latest official advice about COVID-19.

“Ensuring the person being supported also has access to appropriate information about COVID-19 in a format that is accessible to them is vital,” he says.

In terms of looking out for signs of anxiety and depression in people with intellectual disability, particularly in those who can’t easily express themselves verbally, Trollor recommends keeping an eye on things like changes in appetite and sleeping habits, regular and/or heightened feelings of irritation and agitation, and repetitive behaviours.

Young woman with intellectual disability wearing a mask

The MySigns app

MySigns may be a useful tool for people with intellectual disability who have significant communication difficulties, and those who support them.

Developed by UNSW Sydney's Department of Developmental Disability Neuropsychiatry, the app helps those who support people with intellectual disability to access healthcare by documenting moods via photographs and videos, which can be regularly monitored and shared with healthcare professionals.

Supporting mental wellbeing during COVID-19

People with intellectual disability, particularly those with complex mental health issues, may experience heightened levels of stress and anxiety due to the pandemic.

These are some measures that might help.

  • Help ease fear and uncertainty by only seeking information from trusted sources.
  • Avoid negative news, instead look for positive stories about coping during the pandemic and recovery from the virus.
  • Maintain treatment regimes, particularly those related to mental health.
  • Openly and regularly express feelings. For family members and/or caregivers: check understanding and use of materials that help to process the situation and offer support.
  • Maintain usual routines that align with COVID-19 restrictions and health advice.
  • Minimise disruptions to these routines and, if possible, changes in support staff.
  • Incorporate new activities which reinforce COVID-19 preventive measures.
  • Maintain connection with loved ones and friends. If in-person contact is not possible, consider using scheduled telephone and/or video conference.
  • As best possible, do regular exercise, maintain healthy eating habits and try to get enough good-quality sleep.
  • Make the most of relaxation techniques such as mindfulness and meditation. For family members and/or caregivers: help facilitate these things if required (you can download dedicated information on ‘Relaxation for people with disabilities’ here)
  • Seek support early on if you’re worried about anything. Contact the Disability Information Helpline on: 1800 643 787 (available Monday-Friday 8am-8pm) for access to information and referrals for people who need help due to COVID-19, including counselling. For family members and/or caregivers: help facilitate this if required.

Find more handy tips, easy to ready guides and resources to help look after mental health during coronavirus.

For more information

For more information about COVID-19 for people with disability, including easy read resources, see:

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