Answering the Call: State partnership enhances mental health training, aids the most vulnerable population

woman counselor talking with a patient

According to a 2021 report by the Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council, there are more than 161,000 people living with at least one developmental disability in the Commonwealth. The Special Olympics estimates 1-3% of the global population lives with an intellectual disability. In Massachusetts, that would mean people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (I/DD) make up at least 500,000 members of the population. Tragically, abuse rates are high for this vulnerable community.

“According to research, people with I/DD are seven times more likely to be sexually assaulted than those without disabilities and, if left without treatment, are less likely to recover spontaneously from trauma,” says Nancy Alterio, executive director of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC).

Adds Heather Byrns, co-director of William James’ INTERFACE Referral Service, “Research says that 90% of this population will have at least one incident of sexually based trauma and nearly half of people will have 10 incidents or more. But just one can result in PTSD.”

Until recently, people with I/DD weren’t a core focus of mental health therapy, with misunderstandings about their ability to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other types of trauma. Says Byrns, “Research bears the fact that they absolutely do, but a lot of times they may not have the same tools to express it. There are treatment methodologies that are considered best practice, but a lot of people aren’t familiar with how to adapt those to work with this population.”

INTERFACE serves as the bridge between people with I/DD who have experienced trauma and the professionals who are trained to help this nuanced community. The referral service works to break down the silos between agencies, mental health providers, and systems that can hinder access to care for those with disabilities suffering from abuse and assault.

However, in the wake of unprecedented need and lack of providers, wait times have soared. Within the INTERFACE system of roughly 9,000 patients, only a few hundred clinicians are available to treat patients with I/DD experiencing trauma—far from enough to meet such a high demand.

Kelly Casey, managing director of the College’s Department of Forensic and Clinical Services, was the first to suggest a certificate program to grow the roster of available clinicians. She says, “The College not only has the dedication to meet this need—which is significant—but also this is what William James is about, providing training to clinicians who are treating the community to make a difference. The reputation and the capabilities are there.”

DPPC has stepped in to get more boots on the ground and answers on the helpline. Partnering with DPPC has allowed William James to turn Casey’s idea into a full-fledged certificate program, one unlike any other in the country. Mental health clinicians, providers, and graduate students can take any one of six courses to gain best practices in a specific area, or complete the full curriculum for certification, which includes all six courses as well as lunch-and-learn sessions with experts in the field and fellow learners.

“The DPPC was really excited about being able to say, ‘Here’s a group of clinicians that have done a deep dive in understanding multiple modalities that this population really needs,’” says Byrns.

The certificate will cost $180 for six full-day training sessions, as well as six one-hour Professional Learning Community sessions to consult with other clinicians implementing these skills.

“The DPPC had a need that William James identified and is uniquely positioned to fill it,” says Casey. “The reality is this group will continue to be vulnerable, will continue to require specialized services. INTERFACE has never turned anyone away, and thanks to the DPPC we’re ready to build our capacity.”


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