The Simon Heng Column

People with learning difficulties are four times more likely to die an early death than the rest of the population. This finding, made nearly a year ago by the Department of Health, led the Disability Rights Commission to launch an 18-month investigation into the health inequalities surrounding mental illness and learning difficulties.

The DRC has just published its interim report, which seems to expose even greater inequalities. People with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are more than twice as likely to have epilepsy or diabetes, and have increased rates of heart disease and strokes. People with learning difficulties – particularly women – are more likely to be obese (one third, in comparison to one fifth in the general population).

Not only are these groups more prone to certain diseases, but they are also less likely to use diagnostic services: women with learning difficulties have fewer mammograms and cervical smears. People with severe mental health problems are less likely to have their blood pressure or cholesterol levels tested. Paul Corry, of the mental health charity Rethink, estimates that people with severe mental health problems will die, on average, 10 years younger than the general population, due to physical illness.

Few are suggesting any kind of deliberate discrimination. Discrimination is probably inadvertent. There are many reasons why these two groups suffer these kinds of health inequalities. It may well be that carers and health professionals tend to attribute health problems to their clients’ disabilities, rather than to separate health problems. Standard forms of medication might themselves lead to long-term health problems. The full report from the DRC should highlight the possible causes.

One thing seems clear: people with mental health and learning difficulties are not getting the same health checks as the rest of us, and because of their conditions, are less likely to ask for them. Which means that people who help them lead independent lives should be ensuring that they receive standard health checks. Which probably means you.

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