“Help is out there for people with disabilities, and for people with mental illness, but what about those with both? There’s a gap between mental health services for people who have co-occurring developmental disabilities and mental health issues,” said Derek Edge, MA ’07, director of Clinical Services at Easter Seals New Hampshire.
That’s where Derek comes in. “We [at Easter Seals] were finding it pretty challenging to find counselors and mental health professionals that could really excel in working with this population,” he recalled. So Derek, who has a BA in speech therapy, went to Antioch University New England (AUNE) to earn his MA in counseling, which helped him marry the two areas in his job.
“I first had a background working with developmental disabilities, mental retardation, autism, and brain injury, and then I was able to integrate counseling and therapeutic services into that,” he said.
Derek earned his MA while working full time at Easter Seals by taking classes all day on Tuesdays. He was also able to complete his internship at Easter Seals, adding twenty hours per week to his full-time schedule. While he was studying at AUNE, Derek became director of Clinical Services at Easter Seals, training new clinicians to work with people with both disabilities and mental illness.
Adding a Third Factor
Now that he has successfully integrated services for people facing two challenges, Derek is adding a third by focusing on high-risk criminal offenders. People who have disabilities and mental illness and who also have committed offenses such as arson or sexual violence typically are simply not touched by many agencies.
“What I was finding was that there is very little in between a state psychiatric hospital, prison, and the community your backyard,” Derek said. “To help these people, you have to specialize in multiple fields rather than just one. You can’t specialize in criminology. You can’t specialize in mental health. You can’t specialize in developmental disabilities. There are challenges to understanding the interaction between the three things.”
To make a difference in these people’s lives, Derek works with Easter Seals’ statewide program director to develop holistic programs that offer clinical services, behavioral services, nursing, and occupational therapy in staffed vocational and residential programs. The high-risk individuals are treated as they reintegrate into the community from being in a hospital or prison-or they’re able to remain in the community rather than entering an institution.
Edge recalled one patient who was living in a locked residential facility in New Hampshire.
“He had not lived outside the walls of that establishment in over six years,” he said. People doubted the patient’s ability to succeed, but thanks to the services he received from Easter Seals he was able to get a job in maintenance and has been living in the same home for over five years.
“Two of the factors that reduce risk for individuals are stability in either vocational or educational environment, or in the home. We’ve been able to establish both for him, which has been really, really good.”
There are few programs like the one Derek runs. “We’re sort of building the ship as we’re sailing it through the storm,” he said. “It’d be fantastic if there was a model program out there, but right now, that’s us.”
Derek’s program is attracting attention and he has been asked to speak at various conferences. He spoke at the Massachusetts Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (MATSA) conference for the past two years, and the New Hampshire Library Association asked him to give a presentation to help members understand how to communicate with library patrons with disabilities or mental illness, and how to help them in times of crisis. Members of Derek’s team even spoke at the American Psychological Association conference, in Toronto.
Ultimately, Derek thought up the idea of combined services for people with disabilities and mental illness; AUNE stepped in with its flexible master’s program; and Easter Seals had the foresight to let Derek start an innovative program under its umbrella. The result is a program that helps people facing multiple challenges integrate into their communities. Edge sums up his success this way: “If you can think it, you can do it.”