Learning Disabilities Can Take a Heavy Toll on Mental Health
Education and Advocacy Learn more about how disabilities can have an impact on your teen’s mental health.
For many children, school is a wonderful experience filled with meeting new friends, mastering skills, and studying fascinating subjects. Unfortunately, for children with a learning disability, school can be a stressful and anxiety-inducing struggle.
Barbara Arrowsmith Young, educator and founder of the Arrowsmith School, knows all too well the toll that learning challenges can have on mental health and emotional development. As a child, she faced a debilitating learning disability. “I knew, probably before I started school, that I wasn’t learning like the other children, and there was something fundamentally wrong with how I understood the world. For me, going to school was such a struggle. It was like every day I was putting on a backpack filled with 40 pounds of rocks and I was so exhausted after 20 minutes in the classroom. I was being asked to do things that were incredibly difficult, and I saw other students around me engaging and learning in ways I couldn’t.”
Though Arrowsmith Young was able to overcome her learning challenges, not all children are so lucky.
Learning disabilities impact mental health
Children facing educational challenges can develop anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, or experience poor social acceptance because they are constantly engaged in an immense effort to learn and fit in with their peers.
A 2009 study, The Mental Health of Canadians with Self-Reported Learning Disabilities, found that those with learning disabilities were more than twice as likely to report high levels of distress, depression, anxiety disorders, suicidal thoughts, visits to mental health professionals, and poorer overall mental health than those without learning disabilities. The effect of anxiety and stress on learning capacity is further investigated by a recently released study commissioned by the Children’s Mental Health Ontario. The study revealed that 46 percent of the 18- to 34-year olds surveyed in Ontario had missed school due to issues related to anxiety and 42 percent did not get the help they needed.
Overcome shame through open dialogue
Worse yet, because of the shame they feel, individuals with learning disabilities often try to hide their difficulties from their teachers and parents. Left untreated, their educational struggles and feelings of isolation follow them throughout their youth, into their teens and through to adulthood.
“There’s still a tremendous stigma associated with having a learning disability,” says Arrowsmith Young, which is why she believes parents need to look for signs that all is not well at school. Signs can include things like a child who frequently tries avoiding school or has an inconsistent scholastic ability in different subject areas. If uncertain, it’s a good idea to speak to your child’s teachers about their performance and behaviour, and it may also be helpful to get your child assessed by a professional like a psychologist.
Arrowsmith Young also notes that often a child who is described as “difficult” may, in fact, have learning issues. “Often parents and teachers think that the child really isn’t trying, or they could do better if they put in more effort or attention, when in fact the problem is that they don’t learn like the other kids,” she says.
Research shows suicide attempts with individuals who have learning disabilities are double the normal rate. Therefore, parents need to create a space where their child will feel safe to open up and discuss their pain and struggles with learning difficulties. If they can’t, then they may go underground and fester, which can lead to issues with depression, anxiety, and even suicide.
Arrowsmith Young emphasizes there is hope and learning disabilities can be overcome. “We can change a child’s capacity to learn with exercises that strengthen many critical cognitive abilities, like problem-solving. We once believed a learning disability was intractable, but now we know it doesn’t have to be a life sentence.”