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More evidence needed on mental health treatments for people with severe learning disabilities

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Review shows a paucity of evidence to identify specific treatments for mental ill health among people with more severe learning disabilities

People with learning disabilities are at heightened risk of developing serious mental health problems.

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Recent policies focus on developing new approaches to meet people’s needs in hospital and community settings, and in specialist services and universal mental health settings. There are challenges in identifying appropriate evidence to inform interventions for those with more severe learning disabilities.

A rigorous review of published studies aimed to evaluate the effectiveness of psychological and pharmacological treatments for people with severe or profound learning disabilities. Many of the papers identified initially were deemed ineligible for several reasons including lack of participants with severe learning disabilities.

Only five eligible studies were identified; two looked at psychological therapies and three looked at drug-based treatments. The authors noted that aspects of study design meant it was difficult to draw conclusions about the wider implications and the most recent eligible study was almost two decades old. The authors found the significance of addressing mental health needs in this population was apparent because of wide ranging descriptive case studies that were ineligible for their review, due to a lack of empirical analysis of the effectiveness of interventions.

The authors conclude, in the absence of a more informative evidence base, clinicians need to continue to deliver treatments based on what works for the general population, while researchers need to generate more precise evidence concerning mental health treatment for people with severe learning disabilities urgently.

Vereenooghe L, Flynn S, Hastings RP (2018) Interventions for mental health problems in children and adults with severe intellectual disabilities: a systematic review. BMJ Open 8: e021911.

Dave Atkinson is an independent consultant nurse

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