Dual Diagnosis: Mental Health and Developmental Disability Combination Often Overlooked

Published: May 9, 2019


By Kimberley Haley, LMHC
Director of Clinical Services and Director of The Sovner Center for Bridgewell

The month of May is dedicated to raising awareness about mental health, and although the conversation has been elevated in recent years, stigma and mental illness still go hand in hand and barriers to treatment remain.

More than 50 million Americans have a mental health condition, yet, sadly, one out of five people struggling with mental health issues are not getting the help they need. Included in this statistic is an even more underserved and at-risk population: people with a dual diagnosis in autism spectrum disorders or another developmental disability and a mental health condition. While not an uncommon diagnosis, family members and guardians of people with a dual diagnosis continue to have difficulty finding effective care and treatment for them due to a severe lack of resources and shortage of professionals qualified to treat both conditions.

Unfortunately, thorough studies on how mental health disorders affect developmentally disabled people are not prioritized. It’s time for the medical and mental health communities to recognize this and dedicate more research, and resources, to fully understanding the complexities involved with these intertwined conditions so that those in need can receive the care they deserve. Due to the medical and behavioral issues that come with some developmental disabilities, psychiatric issues such as bi-polar disorder, anxiety, depression and schizophrenia may present very differently than they would in an individual without a dual diagnosis. At present, it can still be difficult for highly trained experts to determine if exhibited symptoms are part of a mental health disorder or stem from autism or another developmental disability.

Bridgewell’s Sovner Center, located in Danvers, Massachusetts, is one of just a handful of outpatient behavioral health clinics in the state that specializes in offering support for adults with this type of dual diagnosis of developmental disability and psychiatric disorder. Due to a severe lack of services, The Sovner Center currently serves individuals with dual diagnoses from all over the Commonwealth, who are unable to secure appropriate specialty services elsewhere. The Sovner Center provides care in the form of medication management, counseling, education and evaluation, with a team that is comprised of a psychiatrist, clinical nurse specialists and psychotherapists who are trained to work and treat people with a dual diagnosis.

Because people with a dual diagnosis may struggle with social and behavioral issues as well as concurrent medical conditions, when in crisis and presenting in Emergency Departments, they are  often not deemed eligible for placement on traditional in-patient psychiatric units due to lack of adequate specialized services and personnel who are equipped to properly serve them. The Sovner Center works closely with specialty providers located across the state to ensure that their patients receive the highly individualized care and treatment required to ensure proper treatment given their specific needs and abilities.

Throughout National Mental Health Awareness Month, Bridgewell’s goal is to raise awareness about what it means to have a dual diagnosis of developmental disability and psychiatric disorder.  It’s clear that more resources need to be dedicated to improving the quality of life for people through a combination of education, research, collaboration and coordination of care.

For more information about Bridgewell’s Sovner Center, call 978-750-6828. The clinic is licensed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Public Health and is accredited by the Commission of Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities.


This piece was published in The Daily Item on May 6, 2019.


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