Stress Related to Negative Mental Health Outcomes in Persons with ID

Haleigh Scott, MS
Ohio State University

Research has suggested that people with intellectual disability (ID) experience poorer mental health than people without disabilities. This is reflected in high rates of both mental illness and behavior problems found among persons with ID. Therefore, it is important to consider what factors may influence mental health for people with ID. Stress and social support are two important considerations.

What did you do in your research?
We studied to see if increased stress is related to an increased likelihood of experiencing mental health problems, specifically diagnosed mental illness and behavior problems. In addition, this study examined whether social support increases the risk of mental health problems in people with ID. As the impact of stress and social support on the quality of life and mental health is rarely considered in service planning for this population, research in this area may improve practice and policy. A large, nationally representative sample (n=10,627) from a preexisting dataset, the National Core Indicators, was used to examine the impact of stress and social support on the mental health of adults with ID. Mental heath was defined as both having a mental illness and the presence of behavior problems.

What did you find out?
In this sample, the prevalence of mental illness was approximately 36%, and the prevalence of behavior problems was 45%, findings consistent with the existing literature. There was also significant overlap of mental disorders and behavior problems, with 24% of the sample displaying both. A significant relationship between stress and negative mental health outcomes was found. Thirty nine percent of adults with ID reported at least one stressful life event. For every additional stressor, the likelihood of having a mental illness diagnosis increased by 20% and severe behavior problems by 19%. Furthermore, 42.7% of our self-report sample reported lacking social support on at least one of the five social support questions. Having adequate social support was associated with a greater than 50% decrease in the odds of having a mental illness.

What are the take-home messages?
The results of this study suggest that stress should be considered a part of the assessment of both mental illness and behavior problems. Stress should be considered a risk factor for mental illness and preventative measures should be taken to minimize stress and provide additional support in times of unavoidable stress, such as the death of a family member or change in residence. Improving the supports and services available to individuals with ID during transition periods and other stressful life changes may be important in order to reduce the impact of stress on mental health.  Similarly, social support seems to be important to consider in terms of well-being. Social support measures may help to identify those at risk for developing mental health problems. It is also important to consider how social support impacts service plan decisions, which in turn, affect treatment and life style of persons with ID. For example, an individual with ID may be moved out of a family home into a residential or community placement without due consideration to the familial or community supports that might be left behind.

To learn more about these findings contact Haleigh Scott.

Full Journal Article
Scott, H. M., & Havercamp, S. M. (2014). Mental Health for People With Intellectual Disability: The Impact of Stress and Social Support. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 119(6), 552-564.