Depression and Intellectual Disability

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently funded a study that found that those with intellectual disabilities (ID) had a higher rate of depression – and typically experienced more severe depression --  than the general population.


Unfortunately, diagnosing depression in those with ID can be difficult. While the contributing factors to depression can be biological, cognitive and educational for those with ID, life events play an important part in mental health. Those with ID tend to have more negative social interactions, lack of support for negative events and find common transitions such as puberty and location changes more stressful.


A presentation by Dr. Molly Faulkner, clinical director of NM Behavioral Health Workforce Initiative,  gave an overview of symptoms to look for with those with ID. Dr. Faulkner notes that as recently as the 1980s, the general belief was that those with ID did not have the mental capacity to experience mental health problems and behaviors that may have been borne from depression were attributed to learning disabilities. We now know that assumption was untrue.


Common symptoms of depression with those with ID include:

  • Sad appearance
  • Depression mood
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Hopelessness
  • Guilt
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Tantrums
  • Self injury


Something to consider for those who care for individuals with ID is that a high percentage of ALL patients with depression only report physical symptoms when seeking treatment with their primary caregiver, which makes it difficult to diagnose.


Some common physical symptoms of depression include:

  • Chronic joint pain
  • Limb pain
  • Back pain
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Psychomotor activity changes
  • Appetite changes


Depression is painful, both emotionally and physically. It is important for caregivers to recognize the symptoms of depression and offer help when needed.