It’s June 19, 2013, my first day as a behavior and sexuality support professional. I’m handed a caseload of over 30 people with developmental disabilities and mental health diagnoses. 

All of them had a psychiatrist who prescribed psychotropic medications; however, none of them were working with a therapist. How were they ever going to get off these high doses of psychotropic medications without working with someone on the underlying mental health challenges? 

Obviously, this was a fluke or caseload oversight…right? 

Sadly, over the next few weeks, I learned about the severe lack of mental health professionals (MHPs) providing support to clients with developmental disabilities. Some struggles – such as insurance coverage limitations and numbers of certain types of specialists in an area – were shared by everyone seeking support. 

The biggest challenge for people with developmental disabilities was finding MHPs trained in adaptations for people with developmental disabilities.

Fast forward to 2022. While COVID significantly impacted all of us, we’ve had the opportunity to reflect on what truly matters and create new capacities for the most important resources. While some delighted in having a favorite snack delivered to their doorstep at 2 a.m., it was remotely offered mental health services that had me singing with joy like a character in an animated movie. Finally, a step toward increased accessibility of services!

  • Shelia could process her paranoia with a music therapist from the safety of her own home. 
  • Taylor – an expert at all things iPad related – doesn’t need to have staff in the room when sharing the drawings of their nightmares about coming out. 
  • Neal – a nonverbal communicator whose obsessive compulsive disorder triggers him to pull everything off the walls, including electrical sockets — can safely learn about trauma treatment options like eye movement desensitization reprocessing.

March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month and a reminder — regardless of abilities — that everyone has the right to accessible mental health support services.

According to the 2015 U.S. Census, almost 2 million people with disabilities were living in Philadelphia and the four surrounding counties of Pennsylvania. If one-tenth of them have developmental disabilities and mental health support needs, that’s 200,000 people in search of willing and capable MHPs.

Here is how we can begin to make a difference: 

  • Create educational tools and interventions for local MHPs to reduce avoidance of working with people simply due to a lack of accurate information.
  • Advocate! Reach out to insurance companies and local government officials to prioritize this call to action for specialized MHPs.
  • Contact local colleges to ask if guest speakers with developmental disabilities can help build student comfort and skills in MHP programs.

Anyone who knocks on the door in need of mental health support should be able to trust that someone capable will answer.  

About the Author: Dr. Autumn Dae Miller (she/her) is the Director of Behavioral Health Supports and Services for KenCrest, a human services provider throughout Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Delaware. Autumn has been overseeing and offering clinical supports for the last nine years; however, she has been educating and researching in the field of human sexuality and disabilities for over 20 years. Autumn has been an adjunct professor, guest lecturer, and subject matter expert at local colleges and universities. She has presented at state and regional conferences on trauma, sexuality, disability services, and self-care. Before her work day starts, Autumn amuses herself by celebrating the successful completion of getting ready in the morning by posting her outfits on Instagram.

Source: County Report for Disability Prevalence