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NYTimes Opinion Podcast Host; Former Host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday
Chief Executive OfficerMcGraw Hill
Cesar Chavez Multicultural AcademyChicago, IL
Jefferson County School DistrictArvada, CO
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To the learning disabled community, and our allies,
Our students are in a mental health crisis, one that disproportionately impacts students with learning disabilities. A 2019 CDC report indicated 33% of high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. This number jumped to 44% during the pandemic. For those of us in the learning disability community, mental health issues permeate our everyday lives. The limited research we have supports a strong correlation between learning disabilities and mental health disorders. For example, one study found that individuals with learning disabilities report mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation at twice the rate of their non-disabled peers, even controlling for possible confounding factors. Another meta-analytic study shows varying rates of comorbidity, from 8% to 46.3%, for ADHD and anxiety among students with LD.
Yet, the causal relationship between mental health and learning disabilities is still poorly understood. The topic of mental health rates in the LD community came up time and time again in conversations among our Young Adult Leadership Council members, where for many of us mental health struggles are woven throughout our LD stories. We write this letter first as a note of acknowledgement to the LD community, second to bring awareness of this issue to a broader global community, and third to call in parents, teachers, policy makers, and researchers to help us address this issue.
Generally, poor mental health is associated with challenges with decision making, difficulty in school, difficulty forming positive relationships, and other risky or potentially harmful behaviors. Dual-disability diagnoses present even greater challenges, as many experience persistent stress, anxiety,, trauma, bullying, internalizing problems, and feelings of social isolation as they navigate a world with learning disabilities and mental health disorders. These negative experiences are especially concerning when you consider that almost one-third of incarcerated individuals report having a learning disability, and mental health issues affect approximately half of the incarcerated populations.
“Not being diagnosed until recently as an adult, I never understood why I struggled like I did. However, after my diagnosis, I realized that my anxiety and depressive episodes contributed to my perfectionism and impulsive choices. Undiagnosed individuals with ADHD face the harsh reality of being prone to depression and anxiety. It could lead someone to a pathway of substance abuse and impulsive decision making that can have serious consequences. When you live in a world where people don’t understand individuals with attention issues, it can make you feel like something is inherently wrong with you, which can also contribute to depression.”
We know that students with LD report more issues with mental health. However, that is the extent of the research. We do not know the cause of these lower mental health rates in students with learning disabilities. Anecdotal reports by students with LD suggest that many experience educational trauma. We need research in order to know the extent and impact of this educational trauma. Is educational trauma a risk factor for poor mental health?
As members and activists on the National Center for Learning Disabilities’ Young Adult Leadership Council (YALC), we feel it is imperative to kick-start a solution-driven mental health initiative focused on the intersectionality of learning disabilities and mental health disorders. Many of us navigate life as learning disabled people struggling with mental health. Research suggests that promoting a sense of belonging and peer social support within schools can protect learning disabled individuals from many documented negative outcomes. Yet, many of us experienced various forms of educational trauma throughout education in the form of persistent academic failure, feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, bullying, social isolation, and ridicule. Educational trauma refers to the perpetual pattern of harmful cycles within educational systems that detrimentally affect academic and emotional outcomes.
“The humiliation, bullying, and systematic exclusion was shattering beyond words. Eventually the educational trauma I experienced became a bigger barrier to learning than my actual learning disability.”
Many young adults with learning disabilities describe their K–12 educational experiences as traumatic. They describe feelings of being misunderstood. Often, they report that those around them failed to understand their learning and mental health struggles, as they lacked the words to describe the shame they felt to the adults and peers in their lives. These struggles span well beyond weaknesses in reading, writing, and math. Mental health and learning disabilities are interwoven, and these challenges follow learning disabled individuals as they transition out of high school and into postsecondary education and the workplace.
“It was not until undergrad that I learned that it isn’t normal to feel like you can’t breathe every time before attempting homework.”
Many learning disabled people report feeling unsafe and like they do not belong in the classroom. In talking with almost any learning disabled person, they will tell you that their learning disability has impacted them far beyond just their struggle with learning skills like math and reading. They will tell you that existing as a learning disabled person impacts one’s whole experience with the world, how the world interacts with them, and how they interact with the world. Yes, it’s important for us to help LD students in academic areas like reading and writing. But if we fail to look beyond academics, at the whole person, we miss an entire aspect of the learning disabled experience. We miss what it actually means to exist as a learning disabled person.
“At age 16, as everyone around me wrote in fine penmanship, I felt like a child still writing with red crayon. It didn’t matter what or how well I wrote – I wasn’t allowed to belong.”
What are you doing personally to better understand and address the experiences of the learning disabled community and why our peers are pushed out of schools, into the prison system, into low-wage careers, and, in the best case, into college settings that don’t support us?
We need to talk about mental illness for what it is: a disability. A disability that deserves the same support and focus as dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning disabilities.
Our dyslexia, anxiety, ADHD, depression, dysgraphia, PTSD, and more are disabilities that need support, understanding, and recognition. Many of us on the YALC say that finding the LD community was the key to us feeling like we finally understood ourselves and were able to come out of our shame. We found strength in our shared experiences and were able to name many of our experiences for what they were: educational trauma. In doing so we found our voice, not only to share our stories but to advocate for our community as a whole.
To the LD person reading this, we see and empathize with your struggles. We encourage you to seek out your LD community and embrace your disability identity. The disability label (including mental health and learning disabilities) give you access to support and treatment. It also comes with a community that wants to welcome you in.
Finally, this letter is a call to action — a call to our researchers, policy makers, educators, and parents and caregivers to better understand, address, and find solutions for the mental health needs of individuals with learning disabilities.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP!
Include mental health as measures in your data collection, and mental health disabilities as covariates.
Research educational trauma, including its prevalence and impact on students with learning disabilities.
Conduct holistic research on the experiences of LD students beyond our academic success, and understand the impact on our non-academic lives.
Research the intersection of mental health and learning disabilities, and specifically the experiences of BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and historically marginalized groups.
Include LD people in your research process beyond them being research subjects. Ensure that learning disabled people are a part of the research design process. Get feedback from the LD community and ensure that the research questions you ask are aligned with the values of the community you’re studying. Hire LD people in your labs and centers so a good percentage of the next generation of people studying LD are LD themselves.
For policy makers:
Increase funding for early identification, treatment, and psychological support within schools. We need well-funded school-based mental health programs, school psychologists, counselors, and social workers.
Keep your promise and fully fund IDEA, after over 40 years of never doing so.
Ban the practices of seclusion and restraint that have harmed and oppressed disabled students for decades.
Many of your students are walking into your classroom with years of educational trauma. You can end it. Focus on students’ strengths while also acknowledging and building solutions to address our weaknesses, and listen to students when they are brave in sharing their experiences.
Be aware of the interconnectedness of mental health and learning disabilities, and work with us to create strategies that address what we need and prevent negative outcomes.
Avoid terms such as “lazy” when you talk about your disabled students. We aren’t lazy. We’re trying our best.
For parents and caregivers:
Talk about mental health with us, and help us own our identities as members of the disability community.
Look for early warning signs of mental health issues and teach us to be self-advocates, so that when we’re on our own, we’ve got the skills to stand up for ourselves and the things we need to be successful learners.
For the learning disabled community:
Embrace your learning disability identity. Don’t be afraid to use the language of disability. Taboo and stigma lead people to use euphemisms. But ultimately, our legal rights and our connection to community depend on identifying as disabled. We can end the stigma and taboo of being disabled by embracing this community.
Be willing to talk about how mental health impacts you in school. We are functioning in school systems that are not designed for us and that “others” us constantly. Allowing yourself to get support is the greatest gift you can give to yourself. We know it’s hard to stick out as the one using accommodations, but you’ll be glad you did.
Understand that you’ll need to self-advocate for both your LD and your mental health. This may look like telling your parents and educators what you need in a classroom setting to succeed. This means attending your IEP meeting and making sure your accommodations reflect your needs.
This call to action only scratches the surface of a larger conversation. Our voice matters. Join us in amplifying this initiative by signing below.
The Young Adult Leadership Council