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What Is the Connection between Intellectual Disability and Mental Health?

By T. Carrier
Updated May 17, 2024
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Intellectual disability and mental health are two problematic areas that often intertwine. Individuals with an intellectual disorder are often more susceptible to certain mental health disorders like depression. In turn, some mental health ailments may share origins with an intellectual disability. Since any mental or cognitive impairment can have similar causes or create some similar outcomes, treatments for intellectual disability and mental health disorders may merge.

Mental disorders occur when an abnormality in emotional perception and behavior causes long-term distress and impairment in an individual’s daily functioning. A broad range of mental disorders exist, including personality disorders, anxiety disorders, and mood disorders. These disorders often arise from a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Signs of an intellectual disability usually involve impairments in thinking, comprehension, and complex problem-solving and analysis. These disabilities also have a wide classification system, ranging from mental retardation to learning disabilities. Genetic abnormalities, birth defects, and brain injuries often contribute to the development of an intellectual disability.

Scientific researchers suggest that as many as one third to one half of individuals with intellectual disabilities have at least one mental disorder as well. For example, one condition that may exist in conjunction with an intellectual disorder is schizophrenia. In fact, early indicators of schizophrenia often mimic the manifestations of an intellectual disability: memory impairment, attention deficits, and slowed information processing capabilities. Pervasive developmental disorders such as autism share a similar association with intellectual disabilities. According to scientific evidence, similar genetic and neural abnormalities may underpin both intellectual disability and mental health deficits like schizophrenia and autism.

Intellectual disabilities and resulting environmental stress may make an individual more vulnerable to certain mental disorders as well. Anxiety disorders manifest with extreme worry and obsessive thoughts about potential negative outcomes. An individual with a learning disorder or similar intellectual disability may find himself or herself in a greater and more prolonged state of agitation if routine intellectual tasks cannot be performed at an average pace. Frustration could also cause an individual’s mood to become more saddened, which may create a short-term depressive episode that could evolve into generalized depression.

Many treatment protocols may overlap for intellectual disabilities and mental disorders. Cognitive therapies that address and attempt to correct altered and incorrect thought patterns are commonplace in various psychological treatments. Behavioral therapies that implement specific behavioral tasks are often merged with cognitive approaches, creating a sound treatment protocol for the dual diagnosis of intellectual disability and mental health disorder. Traditional talk-based counseling can help individuals alleviate concerns about a wide variety of cognitive and emotional issues as well.

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