EAMHID 11th Congress: The First in the Second Series of Ten

Germain Weber
Department for Applied Psychology: Health, Development, Enhancement and Intervention, Faculty of Psychology, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria

“Mental health matters…. also for people with intellectual disabilities!”
This might have been the unexpressed slogan motivating a numerous ambitious researchers, professionals, NGO managers, mainly from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, to call for a European mental health agenda for people with an intellectual disability in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. The European Association on Mental Health and Mental Retardation now known as European Association on Mental Health in Intellectual Disabilities has its origins in that period with the aim of making use of early evidence to promote a new thinking about the “mental health issue” in people with intellectual disabilities. From the early days of the founders and the association’s multi-professional membership, psychiatrists, psychologists, educational scientists, mental health nurses, managers of support services for people with intellectual disability were convinced that staging a biennial European congress presenting and promoting advances in the area of mental health and intellectual disability might be a substantial step towards major change. Indeed, up to this point, mental health issues and problem behaviour in people with intellectual disabilities were commonly referred to as being inherent to the intellectual disability itself, with low intellectual functioning being viewed as a result of a “dysfunctional” or “abnormal” brain situation. In line with this assumption and the fact that there was no cure for the suggested “brain damage”, it was common practice to “treat” mental health problems in this population without comprehensive mental health assessment and thus abstaining from treatments based on diagnostic criteria and clinical evidence. Now, 20 years later, with major advancements in basic and applied research, knowledge on mental health issues specific to people with intellectual disabilities has raised substantially. In the past 20 years, the EAMHID organised ten conferences, with the inaugural being held in Amsterdam in 1995 and the 10th being hosted in Florence in 2015. Abstract compilations of these conferences are a good proof that EAMHID is offering a unique platform in Europe for exchanging advances in the field, disseminating evidence-based practices, promoting competences and skills within professional groups and encouraging research. Obviously, much changed during this period, with more and more voices reaching out with convincing evidence, using the network offered by EAMHID.
However, limitations of these achievements become evident when evaluating the success of the knowledge accumulated in this period being transferred into practice and when assessing the impact our knowledge actually has for the mental well-being of individuals with intellectual disabilities.

“Everyone has an equal opportunity to experience mental well-being throughout their lifespan, particularly those who are most vulnerable or at risk” (WHO Europe, 2013).

Indeed, mental health is more than a health issue, covering areas like education, family ties, employment and earnings or healthy life-styles as outlined in the “European Mental Health Action Plan” of WHO Europe 2013. Further, there is a broad agreement that good mental health is essential for all human beings, including people with intellectual disabilities in order to enjoy a good life and especially a good life in the community. In turn, social participation and inclusion are vital ingredients nourishing good mental health. This interplay and reciprocal effect between personal outcomes and social factors as well as the biological factors interacting with behaviour and experience are highlighted in the so-called bio-psycho-social framework, a widely recognised model. Consequently, this paradigm prominently determines WHO Europe’s “cycle for mental well-being”. 

Recently, most of our societies committed themselves to developing equal opportunities for people with disabilities, aiming, among other things, for social inclusion of people with disabilities in all areas of life, including people with intellectual disabilities, presenting a substantial move offering options for new mental health promotion strategies especially for people with intellectual disabilities. The lack of inclusion and violence are known to be major risk factors for mental health, while an accessible and acceptable mental health system is of great importance for effective support and education, and community ties are significant protective factors for good mental health. In addition, recent evidence on adversities in the affective-emotional development of children and young adults with intellectual disabilities as well as new findings with respect to biological factors and gene-to-behaviour relations, often reported with specific syndromes, are now offering us new perspectives for understanding the complex and high vulnerability for mental health problems in people with intellectual disabilities.

Thus, with this conference in 2017, the first of the next series of ten, EAMHID strives towards a next major step for improving mental health for people with ID. In its call for contributions, EAMHID offered traditional formats for presenting genuine research like individual papers or symposia, offering the collaboration of up to four scholars, contributing to one overall topic. In addition, co-productive workshops were offered within the traditional congress tracks. This new format goes far beyond classical formats for presenting research at conferences and aims at bringing stakeholders from different sectors together, including people with intellectual disabilities themselves. We are convinced that a congress offering an inclusive setting and taking advantage of more inclusive strategies will offer a better frame for inspiring experiences. Looking at the big picture opens perspectives for something new, often leading to cross-sectoral collaboration, be it in areas of research or sectors that are commonly not linked or communicating with each other. Thus, EAMHID encourages more unified efforts as kick-off for a next substantial promotion of good mental health for people with ID.

According to this unified approach, those responsible for the scientific program of the congress have brought together some leading experts from selected sectors offering keynote presentations and focused communications to share their knowledge and expertise. The abstract collection of this volume summarizes recent advances in the field of mental health and incorporates early developments in co-productive strategies illustrating the way in which this new kind of collaboration contributes to better mental health for people with ID. Research contributions range from basic research such as gene-behaviour interaction to outcomes in transpersonal interaction analysis, and from recent strategies in assessing traumatic stress to applied behaviour analysis in inclusive educational settings.

This volume is organised into different sections beginning with keynote abstracts, followed by focused communications. The over 200 peer-reviewed abstracts selected for presentation are divided into thematic sectors, including individual abstracts, symposium abstracts and abstracts related to co-productive workshops, having been associated with one of the congress’s tracks. In addition, abstract of pre-congress workshops offered in supplement, as models transferring research into applied practice are included. The abstract volume concludes with an alphabetic index of the contributing authors, referring to the page of the respective abstract.

May this volume be part of a new step towards improving the mental health of people with intellectual disabilities, and may this lead to more effective and respectful treatment with person-centred and biographical approaches being more widely used to understand the individual’s mental health challenges, thus going beyond explaining it.

Mental health for people with intellectual disability is definitely more than a health issue!


World Health Organisation, Regional Office Europe (2013). The European Mental Health Action Plan. WHO-Europe, Copenhagen, Denmark.