Supporting people with a learning disability during lockdown

Alison Leather, Head of Learning Disabilities and Autism, NHS England and NHS Improvement South East

Learning Disability Week 2020 is taking place online this week and focusing on the importance of friendships during lockdown.

We know that people with a learning disability already experience high levels of loneliness and social isolation and that this will only have been made worse by the lockdown. Even before the country went into lockdown, Mencap research suggests that 1 in 3 young people with a learning disability spend less than one hour outside their home on a typical Saturday.

This week is about showing the importance of friendships to help with tackling isolation, as well as exploring the different ways of maintaining friendships during this unusual time.

In the South East, coronavirus has significantly changed the way that Solent NHS Trust delivers its services to people with a learning disability. Many of the Trust’s service users are vulnerable and reside in shared living settings so it had to quickly look at how non-essential visits could be done differently – something that would be a change to what its service users are used to.

As well as supporting service users to understand the changes and how they can continue to access services in a different way; working closely with providers of residential and supported living to ensure residents maintain a healthy routine and can take part in various activities for people with differing levels of learning disability; Solent NHS Trust’s learning disabilities team is supporting its service users to maintain friendships and social contact.

The team has supported service users to set up technology so they can remain engaged and involved virtually, and access online resources.

They’ve set up a virtual social group, allowing service users to come together and talk about what’s going on in their lives. The group is facilitated by an Occupational Therapist who has skills in mental health group facilitation and is able to support people to explore their emotions about the lockdown and offer support.

For those who are celebrating their birthdays during the lockdown, the team has set up WhatsApp calls to ensure they do not feel forgotten.

And they have developed a closed Facebook group for service users known to the team, their family and their carers. The group is a way to share useful information and resources as well as fun activities to maintain engagement at home. For the learning disabilities team, it has been an important way of maintaining contact and connectedness with service users and easily share information on specific health advice; but the main purpose has been to provide an opportunity for service users to ‘see’ familiar staff and maintain a sense of connection with the team.

Perhaps even more important, for group members it has enabled them to support each other. Service users are sharing pictures of what they are doing to pass the time and offering each other moral support and advice – helping to form and develop friendships during lockdown.

The work Solent NHS Trust’s learning disabilities team cannot and should not be undervalued. We know people with a learning disability have fewer chances to take part in leisure activities or socialise with their peers, and so may have fewer friends. While lockdown undoubtedly has an impact on socialising for everyone, the positive to come out of this situation is examples like this: where services have supported people with learning disabilities to maintain social contact and, in some cases may have even help form long-lasting friendships.