By Noah Taborda
There are more than 2,000 people with Down syndrome in Kansas City, but many struggle to access mental health care.
According to the National Down Syndrome Society, at least half of people with Down syndrome will encounter a major mental health concern in their lifetime — commonly anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
Down Syndrome Innovations, a local group providing support and services to people with the condition, saw a gap between need and available services after a deep dive into their client base.
They are now partnering with Johnson County Mental Health Center to provide patients and their families weekly therapy to bridge that divide.
“We cannot ignore those challenges, whether it’s the mental health challenges of the individual themselves or their caregivers,” said Sarah Mai, vice president of lifespan services for Down Syndrome Innovations. “At the end of the day, we look at the health and the wholeness of the entire family and all the supports that are there or missing for that person to be successful.”
Life expectancy for those with Down syndrome is increasing
Down syndrome is the most common genetic condition at 1 in every 800 births.
Common physical traits include low muscle tone, small stature, almond-shaped eyes, and a deep crease across the palm.
People with the condition also carry an increased risk of some medical conditions, like congenital heart defects, respiratory difficulty and trouble with hearing or vision. But these are all treatable, and when addressed, the life expectancy for those with Down syndrome has risen from 25 years in 1983 to 60 years old today.
Mental health supports still lag
However, poor mental health can be a significant barrier even as physical health is improving.
The new partnership in Johnson County will provide a familiar environment to relieve those stressors.
“Our partnership with Johnson County Mental Health Center will not only benefit the individuals and families we serve, but also our team and the larger community,” said Jason Drummond, CEO of Down Syndrome Innovations.
Tim DeWeese, the director of Johnson County Mental Health Center, said the partnership is part of the organization’s mission to meet people where they are in the community.
“We’re proud and honored to bring our mental health services directly to the clients Down Syndrome Innovations serves every day and connect with them in a space they feel comfortable,” DeWeese said.
JoCo’s service is currently unique in the KC metro
As part of the program, people with Down syndrome and their caretakers can speak with a mental health clinician every Thursday for eight to 12 sessions per patient.
If they need more services, clinicians will provide a referral.
You do not have to be a Johnson County resident to participate, but for now, the county’s mental health center is the only site currently providing clinicians.
Mai praised Johnson County for stepping up and encouraged other counties to consider doing the same.
“Our goal is to ensure that there’s mental health support across all counties in Kansas and Missouri — and especially that there is support across the metro area,” Mai said.
KCUR 89.3 is Kansas City’s NPR affiliate public radio station. You can read and listen to more of their reporting at kcur.org.
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