Plain Language Summary – Dual Diagnosis 101

People who experience dual diagnosis are people who experience a developmental disability and a mental health concern. It is a common condition and 30-35% of people with developmental disabilities also experience mental health concerns.

Developmental Disability is a term that includes disabilities that can be cognitive, or physical, or both. These disabilities appear before the age of 22 and are likely to be lifelong experiences. Some developmental disabilities are largely physical issues, for example cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Some developmental disabilities include a physical and intellectual disability, for example Down syndrome and fetal alcohol syndrome. Intellectual disability is a type of developmental disabilities that is broadly related to thought processes. Because intellectual and other developmental disabilities often occur at the same time, or co-occur, professionals often work with people who experience both types of disabilities.

Mental Health diagnosis refers to a wide range of mental health conditions that affect mood, thinking and behavior; for example depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance use disorder. These conditions can be experienced by any person throughout their life.

People experiencing dual diagnosis and those that provide services face several challenges. For example, it can be difficult for the professionals to make sure they identify the experiences of their clients correctly. One of the reasons this can be difficult is something called diagnostic overshadowing. Diagnostic overshadowing happens when a professional decides that what a person is experiencing with their mental or physical health is because of their disability and it is not because they are having an additional mental health concern. This means that the professionals aren’t looking at the person as an individual outside of their disability. For example, a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) might also experience depression but their service provider sees it as a symptom of ASD not an additional condition.

Diagnostic overshadowing is concerning for individuals experiencing dual diagnosis. If professionals don’t take their concerns seriously, they may not receive the help that they are seeking. Communication needs can also be concerning. If it is difficult to explain what you are feeling, a professional may not take the time to truly understand why you are seeking services.

To learn more about dual diagnosis read the MHDD fact sheet, Dual Diagnosis 101. You can also visit the Center for START Services website and NADD website to learn more about persons with developmental disabilities and mental health needs.

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