Mental-Health System Ignores Those with Developmental Disabilities

By Yona Lunskyand Robert Balogh | Winnipeg Free Press, April 29, 2017 | Go to article overview

Mental-Health System Ignores Those with Developmental Disabilities


Yona Lunskyand Robert Balogh, Winnipeg Free Press


With the recent federal commitment to increase mental-health funding across Canada, we need to turn our attention toward a group of individuals that is invisible within Canada's mental-health system -- a group that has some of the greatest need for services and supports, yet is rarely acknowledged or targeted.

Those with developmental disabilities -- which include Down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome and autism -- are rarely recognized in mental-health statistics, policy priorities, education and training or even clinical practice.

There was a time when this population was not seen within mainstream mental-health initiatives because they received their care in a separate system, primarily through institutional care. But with the closure of institutions and an emphasis on community inclusion in Canada over the past several decades, those with developmental disabilities are expected to access physical and mental-health care, as with everyone else, in their home communities.

Unfortunately, their health needs are often not adequately addressed. And our inability to see this population is costing the health system enormously.

In August 2016, the Ontario ombudsman released Nowhere to Turn , a disturbing report following a four-year investigation about the care and treatment of adults with developmental disabilities. The report found frequent emergency-department use and lengthy hospitalizations, as well as homelessness, incarceration, family burnout and cases of abuse and neglect.

Although mental health was not the focus of the investigation, it was clear that poorly addressed mental-health issues led to many of the social and health problems highlighted in the report.

Perhaps because of the complexity of health needs (physical and mental-health problems are prevalent), this group is more likely to have repeat emergency department visits and to be re-hospitalized than other individuals. That's a sign that the connection between community and hospital-based care for those with developmental disabilities is not what it should be.

A national study of hospitalizations, published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry , found that psychiatric hospitalizations accounted for almost half of developmental disability hospital admissions. The majority of those with developmental disabilities hospitalized for psychiatric issues were youth and young adults, in stark contrast to what was observed in those without these disabilities whose psychiatric hospitalizations tended to occur later in life. …

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