Psychological disturbance associated with sexual abuse in people with learning disabilities. Case-control study.

Background: The association between sexual abuse, mental health and behavioural problems in people with learning disabilities has not previously been examined in a controlled study.

Aims: To identify symptoms of psychological disturbance in adults with and without a confirmed history of sexual abuse.

Methods: The study used a matched (1:1) case-control design comparing 54 adults who had experienced sexual abuse with 54 adults with no reported history of abuse. The two groups were selected from a community population of adults with learning disabilities living in residential care, and compared for selected psychiatric diagnoses and for scores on measures of disturbed behaviour.

Results: Sexual abuse was associated with increased rates of mental illness and behavioural problems, and with symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Psychological reactions to abuse were similar to those observed in the general population, but with the addition of stereotypical behaviour. The more serious the abuse, the more severe the symptoms that were reported.

Conclusion: The study provides the first evidence from a controlled study that sexual abuse is associated with a higher incidence of psychiatric and behavioural disorder in people with learning disabilities.