Mental Disability – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Mental disability

An intellectual disability occurs when a person cannot process and apply new information. In addition to a reduction in intelligence, social competence is also severely impaired. Intellectual disability can be both congenital and acquired. An intellectual disability cannot be cured, but it can be treated depending on its severity in order to enable those affected to lead a “normal” life.

What is an intellectual disability?

Intellectual disability occurs when the ability to understand or apply new or already known information is severely impaired. Furthermore, there is a reduction in the ability to learn and apply new skills. Due to the reduced or disturbed intelligence, it is rarely possible for those affected to lead a self-sufficient (independent) life. Due to the mental disability, social competence is also impaired.

The term “mental retardation” also depends on society and its norms. Mental retardation can begin even before birth in the womb. According to the WHO (World Health Organisation), the term “mental retardation” also includes the disease autism, as sufferers usually have cognitive impairments.

Developmental disorders and psychological problems are also included, although it is controversial whether these are to be classified as mental disabilities. In the case of dementia, previously learned skills are lost, so that this is referred to as a mental disability. The distinction between mental and mental disability is fluid, so that a clear assignment can often not be made.

Some sufferers can lead an independent life with appropriate therapy. The more severe the mental retardation, the more likely it is that those affected will be dependent on help and care from third parties for a lifetime.


Intellectual disability can have many causes. A distinction is made between endogenous and exogenous factors.

Endogenous factors include the hereditary component. Diseases caused by genetic defects, such as Down syndrome, are inherited from generation to generation.

Exogenous factors include causes that have already occurred during pregnancy and have caused lasting damage to the embryo. In addition to alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders can also disrupt cerebral development.

Mental retardation can also result in chemotherapy and radiotherapy. If pregnant women are diagnosed with cancer, it should be considered, together with all attending physicians, what measures to take to protect the life of mother and child.

The human brain is very sensitive to lack of oxygen. Especially in high-risk pregnancies, a lack of oxygen can occur during birth, which can often result in a more or less pronounced mental disability.

Symptoms, complaints & signs

Since intellectual disability is defined by a low intelligence quotient (IQ), many different symptoms typically occur. Mentally disabled children often think and act as if they were younger than they actually are. Depending on the severity of the intellectual disability, there may be several years between actual age and “mental age”. Such a deviation is also possible in adults.

The cause of this apparent age shift lies in cognitive and other psychological abilities. These are less developed in people with an intellectual disability than in most other people. As a result, difficulties in learning to read, counting or arithmetic often occur. In infancy, a possible early sign is insufficient or late speech development – however, this symptom alone is not enough to speak of intellectual disability.

Intellectual disability can also affect emotional processing and coping. Mentally handicapped people feel like any other person, but they are sometimes unable to control their emotions. As a result, they often have an impulsive and uninhibited effect. They may be more susceptible to emotional contagion, in which they pick up emotions from their environment and feel them themselves.

Social skills can also be underdeveloped. In addition to the symptoms of intellectual disability, motor impairments can also be added.

Diagnosis & course

The mental retardation is diagnosed by the neurologist and psychologist. Here, intelligence is measured using intelligence tests. Intellectual disability is classified as follows: mild intellectual disability (IQ between 50 and 69), moderate intellectual disability (IQ between 35 and 49), severe intellectual disability (IQ between 20 and 34), severe intellectual disability (IQ below 20).

Since there is often a physical disability in addition to intelligence, a traditional intelligence test is sometimes not possible. Therefore, other specific tests are also carried out to determine the extent to which the person concerned can take care of himself independently, such as dressing, eating or performing light activities.

The assessment of intellectual disability by means of an intelligence test is highly controversial. In the meantime, some diagnostic methods have already been adapted so that the individual patient is assessed using a systemic human-environment relationship analysis.

To support the diagnosis, further examinations are performed. In addition to a chromosome analysis and a subtelomer analysis, a test for fragile X syndrome is also performed.

The course of intellectual disability is difficult to classify. Especially in the case of a mild mental disability, a normal life can be led by adequate therapy. As a rule, however, those affected are dependent on the help of third parties for a lifetime. Depending on how severe the mental disability is, institutions should be considered that can guarantee adequate care around the clock.

In terms of life expectancy, there are no differences to healthy people. For some types of mental disabilities, which are mainly associated with physical impairments, life expectancy may be shortened.


An intellectual disability is a severe limitation in a person’s emotional or cognitive performance. This can be expressed in thinking disorders, intellectual disability and deficits in social coexistence. Mental disabilities include, for example, Down syndrome, autism or meningitis.

In some cases, patients receive medication and other therapies such as occupational therapy, speech therapy as well as curative education measures and rehabilitation measures. However, complications can occur when a patient gets an unforeseen flare-up. Also, if medication is not taken or not taken regularly or is discontinued against medical advice, this can lead to invaluable problems.

Complications also include the fact that the patient can become endangering himself or others. Therefore, it may be difficult to delegate responsible tasks in professional or social life to those affected, as they can react differently than healthy people. In some cases, it is often advisable to employ people with intellectual disabilities in protected areas of work or to participate in social life through inclusion projects.

Likewise, the care ratio in social institutions or on the second labour market can be a factor to avoid complications. However, the top priority should be to follow the advice of doctors, psychologists and educators.

When to go to the doctor?

If relatives or close confidants notice a conspicuous behavior of the person concerned, a doctor should be consulted. If there are inappropriate reactions or the person concerned does not react at all to certain stimuli, this is unusual and should be examined by a doctor. Abnormalities of eye movements, head or body posture as well as motor disorders should be examined and treated. A strong mental retardation, reduced intelligence or a learning disability should be presented to a doctor.

Developmental disorders and a lack of social competence indicate mental problems that require a visit to the doctor. Disturbances of attention, concentration and orientation problems should be medically controlled. A delay in speech formation or communication disorders are indications that must be examined by a doctor. If the person concerned is not able to lead an independent life, daily help is needed. If the patient cannot take care of himself or fulfill everyday duties, a doctor should be consulted.

If there are comprehension problems or if the person concerned does not adhere to simple agreements, the cause of the irregularities should be determined. In case of apathy, apathy, disinterest in social activities or interpersonal exchange, the observations should be discussed with a doctor. If the control over the body excretions can not be learned, a doctor’s visit is required.

Treatment & Therapy


If the mental disability only occurs at a later stage of life, e.g. due to an accident, psychosocial and pedagogical measures during rehabilitation can help to partially restore previously learned and mastered skills and functions. Since only the basis for treatment can be laid in the rehabilitation centers, it is necessary to continue the therapy in outpatient rehabilitation centers afterwards.

In order for a treatment to be successful, it is necessary to carry out the various therapies for a lifetime.

Outlook & Forecast

The prognosis for an intellectual disability depends heavily on the severity of the disability itself. In no case can a cure from the condition of mental disability be expected. In some cases – for example due to degenerative diseases – the symptoms can worsen.

People with mild mental disabilities are usually able to live as independently as possible. Although they lack some knowledge and skills, with a little help they can build a life worth living for themselves. The same applies to people with a moderate intellectual disability.

You can find your way in life, but depending on the situation, you need outside help more often. The quality of life of these mentally handicapped people is strongly dependent on the support they receive. Mentally disabled people who learn practical and social skills have a good chance of leading a largely fulfilling life.

In the case of severe and severe mental disabilities, however, lifelong support is required. Those affected cannot find their way in life themselves and will never get out of this state. Promotional measures are important, but they will not lead to an increase in intelligence. If mentally handicapped people do not experience any support measures or any kind of care, they usually do not even reach the mental maturity of a three-year-old. Without support they are not viable.


Since mental retardation usually has many causes, various prophylactic measures can be taken.

If mental disabilities have already occurred in the family, genetic counselling is required, especially if there is a desire to have children. Pregnant women should be advised that , nicotine and drugs increase the risk of mental retardation many times over.

A healthy and balanced diet, the use of preventive examinations for pregnant women and sufficient vaccination protection of the mother and later the newborn are good measures to prevent mental retardation.

Since an intellectual disability can also be the result of an accident, preventive measures for accident prevention in the household, kindergarten, school as well as with means of transport such as bicycles, motorcycles and cars make sense.


In the case of intellectual disability, care and aftercare can go a long way. The aftercare measures can include psychosocial and physiotherapeutic measures as well as necessary aftercare in matters of addiction or delinquency. The latter two are taboo subjects.

Unfortunately, there are only a few outpatient addiction counseling centers dedicated to this topic and include an aftercare group for mentally disabled addiction patients. This topic is also becoming somewhat relevant in the prison system. Here, psychological aftercare is particularly important. Mentally disabled people need special care when they experience trauma and develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

Depending on the age at which the mentally disabled person is, language and speech promotion or the promotion of motor skills can be used to gain more comprehensive participation in the lives of others. In addition, genetic causes can also include physical limitations such as short stature or clubfeet. These also require medical or orthopaedic follow-up treatment and monitoring.

Aftercare for mentally disabled people includes comprehensive measures that vary depending on the family situation and disability. Mentally disabled people need a special workplace. They need offers for assisted living. The fact that supportive support has turned some people with Down syndrome into successful actors and fashion models speaks for itself. It proves that many people with intellectual disabilities can also lead independent lives.

What you can do yourself

Most intellectual disabilities are genetic or irreversibly caused by disease. In the area of self-help in everyday life, it is therefore not about healing the mental impairment, but about ways to deal with it better.

It is difficult to accept a mental disability as such, especially if you have been suddenly confronted with it. In order to manage everyday life well, can therefore be useful. Depending on the exact form of mental disability, a structured everyday life is also very important.

This helps the person concerned to find his way better in everyday life. But also for the social environment, a meaningful structuring can be important in order to cope with all upcoming tasks and still find rest periods for oneself.

In order for this to succeed, all possibilities of support should be used in everyday life. These include, on the one hand, the offers that come from the environment itself, but on the other hand also all possibilities of state or municipal support through financial aid or concrete support in the care of people with intellectual disabilities. Many counselling centres give those affected an overview of all the services to which they are entitled.

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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.