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What are the Differences between Intellectual Disability and Mental Illness?

By: James Sleigh

This is a question that frequently comes up in our experience. Here at Camphill Village West Coast, we provide a residential community for those with intellectual disabilities and special needs. So how do we distinguish between intellectual disabilities and mental illness?

Intellectual disability

An intellectual disability means that a person has problems with learning, understanding, processing information and problem solving. There may also be difficulties with communication, social skills and general living skills.

Intellectual disability is usually present from birth and will be evident before adulthood. It is a permanent condition, not an illness or disease.

Intellectual disability cannot be cured or treated with medication. With the right support, people with intellectual disabilities can learn enough life skills to cope and be involved in their community. This where Camphill comes in, providing a secure and active community in which people with intellectual disability can reach their full potential.

Mental illness

Mental illness affects emotions, mood, perceptions and behaviour and can be suffered by people of all levels of intellectual ability.

Mental illness can onset at any age (although it is unlikely to affect children before puberty). It can be a temporary condition, be experienced in cycles, or episodes may recur throughout life.

Mental illness is treated with medication and psychosocial support. With the right treatment those suffering from it can manage their symptoms and live a normal, independent life.

Examples of mental illness include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression.

Intellectual disability is assessed by a psychologist whereas mental illness needs to be diagnosed and prescribed for by a psychiatrist. It's quite possible for a person with an intellectual disability also to suffer from mental illness, in which case that secondary condition will be treated with appropriate medication and support.

If you have any more detailed questions about intellectual disability please feel free to contact Carine on 021 571 8600 or email socialworker@camphill.org.za.