Researchers argue that, although people with intellectual disability are less likely to use substances than the general population, people with intellectual disability who do use substances are more likely to abuse substances (Didden, Embregts, van der Toorn & Laarhoven, 2009). Alcohol and cannabis are the most commonly misused drugs by people with intellectual disability, and are most common among people who live independently and have less involvement with family members and/or support services (NSWCID, 2009).
Many people use alcohol and other drugs to deal with the emotional effects of traumatic experiences, to alleviate loneliness or inhibition, or to deal with physical pain. This is as true for people with intellectual disability as it is for the general population. While drug and alcohol abuse entails serious health risks for any person, it can be more difficult for a person with intellectual disability to see their problem and get appropriate help when they seek it (NSWCID, 2009).
Aside from the physical and mental health risks, people who misuse alcohol and other drugs are also further at risk of exploitation, criminal victimisation and engaging in offending behaviour (NSWCID, 2009). Community Living Association (2009) cites research which suggests that some other factors contributing to the relationship between people with an intellectual disability and substance abuse include:
- The lack of support that individuals with intellectual disability are likely to receive both from disability and mainstream services
- Use of substances to relieve anxiety, stress, other mental health issues and for self-medication
- Use of substances as a response to isolation, loneliness, boredom, stigma and exploitation
- Peer pressure and the influence of others.
One issue of major concern is that there is a lack of service response for people with intellectual disability who experience substance abuse. Mainstream addiction services may actually exclude this group due to their lack of training with people with intellectual disability (who fall into the ‘too hard basket’). In addition, their usual models and responses may be ineffective (Community Living Association, 2009). ‘
It gets rid of the pain, it blocks things in my head.’ ‘It just works – everything improves, my spelling, reading, maths, all the bad thoughts I have everyday disappeared.’
‘Living in the first flat was hardest, lonely, bored. It partly started with boredom.’
‘I wanted to blend in with all the people, cos when I was at school I used to get teased a lot. I was always the person who got left out. I just wanted to blend in, people were doing drugs so I would. I wanted to have friends and stuff.’
(Community Living Association, 2009)