Impact of the Pandemic on the Lives and Mental Health of People with Intellectual Disabilities

Reflections on an event held by IPPO and the University of Glasgow on May 19th. A full video of the event can be found here.

Professor Nick Watson

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a catastrophic impact on the 1.5 million people with learning disabilities in the UK. Not only were they more likely than the general population to contract COVID-19, and to experience poorer health outcomes and mortality but their services and support networks were greatly disrupted.

The aim of this workshop was to both present evidence on what life has been like for people with a disability during the pandemic and point to directions for future policy development to help mitigate the impact.

Drawing on research that examined the experiences of people with a learning disability and  their families and combining this with the perspective of those who work with people with a learning disability the workshop considered the commonality of issues raised by different streams of research, looking at the impact of the pandemic on mental health and wellbeing, physical health, the way the response to the pandemic increased vulnerabilities and the role of service providers.

The workshop opened with a presentation by Eddie McConnell, the Chief Executive Officer of Downs Syndrome Scotland entitled “The Good, the bad and the ugly: Reflections on the pandemic from the Down’s Syndrome Community in Scotland’.  He talked about what had worked well, what had not and what were the implications.  He made the point that the Third Sector was key and that it rose to the challenge but that inequality and discrimination lurked just below the surface.

In the next presentation Angela Henderson, the Director of Policy and Impact for the Scottish Learning Disabilities Observatory spoke about their work examining the morbidity and mortality associated with Covid and people with a learning disability in Scotland.  Their study found that people with a learning disability were twice as likely to become infected and 2.2 times more likely to have a severe infection compared to people without a learning disability.  It also showed that 28.5% of people with learning disabilities died following COVID-19 infection compared to 22.3% in the general population.

In the third presentation Roseann Maguire and Amanda Gillooly from the Coronavirus and people with learning disabilities research team talked about how the pandemic had affected people with a learning disability’s mental health, their access to health services and their social life.  They also reported on the recommendations that have emerged from their study.

Finally, Nat Scherer from the International Centre for Evidence in Disability at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine looked at how policy responses to the pandemic had made people with a learning disability vulnerable to the virus.   He told us that their needs had not been considered and that many had been left lonely and isolated and that this had put them at increased risk.

In the discussions that followed the presentations it was recognised that many of the problems faced by people with a learning disability were the result of long-standing issues.  The pandemic exposed the limited understanding and neglect of governments and other statutory agencies of the needs and lives of people with learning disabilities and their families and that the problems they faced were the result of government action, or rather, inaction, entrenching pre-existing inequitable social and institutional structures. It was also recognised that impact of the pandemic is still not fully understood, and we should expect and prepare for more problems to emerge in the future.