Learning disabilities and mental health problems aren't the same
Before the pandemic, I loved going to my local pub every week.
I’d order a whiskey and Coke and sing along to my favourite Whitney Houston classics on the karaoke machine.
When I was there, I felt accepted and valued. People listened to me, and they gave me the time I needed to express myself.
Nothing made me happier.
As someone with a learning disability, it means a lot that people see me as the passionate, positive person I am. But life isn’t always like that, and as we return to normal after the Covid-19 crisis, I’m worried that people like me are still being left behind.
There are over 1.5million people living with a learning disability in the UK, but many people still don’t understand what a learning disability is, let alone what life can be like for someone who has one.
I was two years old when I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, which affects my movement and my communication. Then, two years later, I was also diagnosed with a learning disability.
I try to live as independently as possible, but sometimes I need support with daily living, and it might take me a bit longer than other people to understand things.
I live in a supported living care home, where I get one-to-one support from care staff in the morning. I also have supportive family and friends. Life isn’t always easy, but I try my best.
Before Covid, I was a bit of a celebrity in my local area of West London. People recognised me because of my electric wheelchair, and they all knew my name. It felt like a lot of people wanted to help me.
I like doing my own thing and staying busy is what keeps me focused – whether that’s going out to bars, nightclubs or to watch football – so you can imagine how it felt to suddenly be plunged into lockdown and have all those things taken away from me. I became lonely and upset.
I know the pandemic was a difficult time for many people, but it left people with a learning disability feeling more isolated than ever. As someone who was clinically vulnerable, I was advised to stay home and shield from the virus.
No one could visit me so my mum, my brother and my dad would come to my window a few times a week. They’d ask how I was coping, and it was difficult because they could still spend time together without me.
I was lost and frustrated. I felt so alone that I’d look at family photos on my phone all the time. One morning, I woke up at 5am and went to the bathroom mirror to find tears streaming down my face. I asked myself what I’d done wrong, and I didn’t know what to do.
It was like I’d been forgotten, and I’m not the only person living with a disability who feels this way. When it comes to understanding and supporting someone with a learning disability with their mental health, the conversation goes quiet.
Research from the learning disability charity Mencap shows that in the aftermath of the pandemic, people with a learning disability are still struggling with their mental health and there isn’t enough support available.
In a survey of families and carers of people with a learning disability, 88% of people said their loved one always or very often felt sad, and 82% of people felt lonely. Nearly a third of people said they were struggling with their mental health – a problem that’s made worse because some people still wrongly believe that learning disabilities and mental health problems are the same thing.
I get really angry when people get these things confused. Anyone can experience struggles with their mental health and people shouldn’t write off my feelings. Depression and anxiety are about what’s going on in your mind, not whether someone needs a bit of extra help or time to do things.
I’m a funny, exciting and caring person. I’d like to meet someone, settle down and have children. I’d also love to set up my own charity to support people with disabilities in my home country of Zimbabwe and find a job where I can make a difference. But since I finished education in 2019, there’s been nothing for me to do.
I try to fill my time. I go out every day for some fresh air and I’ll arrange to see family and friends. I also attend meetings with my local Mencap organisation to talk about campaigns and how to fix inequalities for people with learning disabilities.
When you have a job, it keeps your mind busy and it gets you out of the house. Currently, I can only work for 16 hours or less per week, otherwise I risk my benefits being cut. My care costs have also increased recently, and food shopping is getting more expensive.
The money I get is never enough, and I ask myself if the Government cares. In the pandemic, I was eventually able to see an NHS counsellor to talk about how I was feeling, but the support was only available for six weeks. How can you tell someone everything you’re going through in such a short period of time? I also can’t afford to go private.
This week is Learning Disability Week. It’s a time to educate others, to end discrimination and to fight for a fair society for people with a learning disability. I want the world to understand the impact the pandemic has had on our lives, and on our mental health.
That’s why I’m also campaigning with Mencap to make a difference and to help people understand what’s on my mind. People need to know what’s happening behind closed doors and realise that our mental health matters, too.
I hope the Government will provide the support we need and deserve. I’d like to see more specialist mental health professionals who are trained to help people with a learning disability and more services in the community to promote accessibility and independence.
I never give up and I’ll always speak up for everyone who has a learning disability. Please don’t leave us in the dark.
Find out more about Learning Disability Week (20-26 June) and Mencap’s Mental Health campaign by visiting www.mencap.org.uk #LDWeek22
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