07 November 2019

How health psychology helps people with learning disabilities

Health Psychologists apply their knowledge of psychology, the latest research and interventions to promote general good health and well-being and to understand physical illness.  They promote healthier lifestyles and try to find ways to encourage people to improve their health.  They also use their skills to improve healthcare systems and to inform health policy. They work with patients and their families/carers as well as with healthcare professionals and organisations.   Health Psychology, compared with other psychological disciplines, is a relatively new branch of psychology.

Abdi is a trainee Health Psychologist who joined the team at Huntercombe Centre Birmingham in October 2018.   The centre in Birmingham is for men with a learning disability or autistic spectrum disorder who need some short-term rehabilitation.  Abdi is also a Doctoral Student at Staffordshire University.

So far Abdi is thoroughly enjoying his time working at Huntercombe and feels he has developed as a clinician and has been able to add value to the centre’s Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT) with the interventions he has suggested and made to date.   However, it did take a few months for Abdi to find his place within the team as not everyone in the team were aware of what a health psychologist could do or the different skill set he could bring to the existing team.   The team now have a much clearer idea of the benefits health psychology can bring to this type of service.

Since starting at Huntercombe Birmingham, Abdi has already developed interventions for a number of health-related difficulties including health anxiety, pain management, weight management and sexual health.  He has used psychological models such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and the COM-B model for developing his evidence-based interventions.  One thing he has learnt, particularly in relation to weight management for this group of men, is how important it is to interact with the patients creatively.   He believes that this has not only resulted in improved effectiveness of the interactions but also helped him to gain confidence in working with men with learning disabilities.  For weight management he runs three groups each week at the centre:

  • Belly busters is a psychoeducational group focussing on healthy eating
  • Looking after yourself group is run together with the occupational therapy department and supports patients in understanding the health benefits of attending to personal and environmental hygiene and
  • Gym group provides an opportunity for patients to attend the local gym to increase their physical activity

As sexual health is commonly an area that is overlooked when working with individuals with learning disabilities, Abdi introduced and facilitated a sexual health group for the patients.   The group proved quite challenging at first and naturally provoked some anxiety amongst the patients due to the topic. However once these feelings diminished, Abdi realised the positive impact these sessions had on the patients and it reinforced to him how important it is to support patients in this area.

In February 2019 the Huntercombe Group officially became a smoke-free organisation.   This change meant that patients were no longer allowed to smoke cigarettes or cigars anywhere on a Huntercombe site, including the garden areas.  Abdi was asked to be the centre’s smoking cessation lead.   This initially proved quite a struggle as roughly half the patients at the Birmingham centre were smokers.   With support from the team and his knowledge of psychological strategies for behaviour change, the team were able to use a person-centred approach to move patients to their choice of nicotine replacement products. By giving patients a choice of nicotine replacement and explaining the risks involved with all the different products on the market, patients were more able to make an informed choice.   We now have no tobacco smokers at Birmingham: two gave up smoking completely whilst others opted for healthier alternatives to tobacco.

Abdi is now looking to develop an oral hygiene group at the centre.  Whilst it is currently quite unusual for health psychologists to work with individuals with learning disabilities in services such as Birmingham, Abdi believes this will soon change as more psychologists choose to train in this specialist area.