Mental health counseling provides widespread benefits to individuals with developmental disabilities. The fact that an individual has an intellectual disability does not preclude them from the same disorders that affect many individuals who do not have an intellectual disability (diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, high cholesterol, etc.). This includes mental illness.
The mental health issues that impact individuals with developmental disabilities are diverse. Anxiety, impulse control, anger management, depression, lack of coping skills, schizophrenia, and bereavement are all common issues to be addressed in therapy. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to locate a psychotherapist trained, or in some instances willing, to work with this population. Tremendous benefits can be realized by providing this outlet to individuals with developmental disabilities.
Many individuals with special needs live in a residential setting, group home or apartment, which may include the component of residing with multiple housemates. Individuals living in this type of setting often strive for an outlet for one-on-one uninterrupted conversation. This type of living arrangement will often result in competition for attention and negative behaviors are often rewarded with the most attention. This can result in the development of maladaptive behaviors in those unable to achieve attention in a positive way. Providing individuals the opportunity to share their experiences (positive and negative), accomplishments, worries and goals is something everyone should have the opportunity to do.
Individuals living on their own in the community also benefit from having a sounding board for day-to-day issues. Weekly “maintenance” of the previous week’s issues can be of great benefit to individuals working to be independent. People with Asperger syndrome/mild autism can find great relief at having the opportunity to discuss interactions that they had with their co-workers, parents, friends and neighbors. Very often discussing these interactions can help the individual better interpret the original conversation, due to often missing some of the subtle cues and contexts while they were discussing it at the time. Concerns regarding isolation and loneliness, and strategies to find a circle of friends and/or relationship with a significant other are also common and important themes to be covered in therapy.
Group counseling is another great opportunity to grow socially and to learn new skills. The focus of group sessions is to utilize peers to solve problems rather than always deferring to the “authority figure” (parent, group home manager, service coordinator, therapist). The goal is to have the individual utilize their support system of friends and peers to troubleshoot daily issues in their lives. Building in clients the openness and comfort level to utilize their peers to discuss everyday concerns is a great strength. It opens a wealth of resources to help navigate the world.
It is important that all individuals have access to the benefits of mental health services when needed. Significant improvements are commonly seen, within individuals with developmental disabilities, when given the opportunity to utilize a trained psychotherapist.