Learning disabilities fuel anxiety and depression


Adolescence is typically a time of adjustment. Young teens are grappling with physical changes, new hormone fluctuations, and social clumsiness, to name just a few of the challenges facing this age group. Throw in a learning disability, one the adolescent may have been struggling with for years, and the effect on their self-esteem and mental health can be significant. No doubt, as children, they had already experienced a sense of shame or embarrassment due to their inability to process curriculum as their peers could. But now, in a middle school or high school setting, the stigma attached to being learning disabled can intensify.

Learning disabilities and depression

Generally, learning disabilities increase the risk of depression in students. A longitudinal study, undertaken by Georgios Sideridis of Harvard Medical School and published in 2006, found that the presence of depression of those students with learning disabilities was significantly higher than those without a learning disability.

The objective of his investigation was to evaluate and expand on the goal-orientation model of depression vulnerability first proposed by B. M. Dykman (1998), which posited that a performance orientation creates a vulnerability to depression through repeated failure. Performance-avoidance goals may account for the vulnerability factor that triggers the mechanism of depression when negative events, such as chronic frustration, are in place.

Dyslexia, which is a specific reading disability, is a common learning disability characterized by a severe difficulty in mastering reading, despite average intelligence and education. Several publications on dyslexia have stated that dyslexics are prone to developing depression. Results of studies on this topic showed that children and adolescents with dyslexia were less happy than peers without dyslexia. This was in spite of the subjects coming from families of high socioeconomic status, parents with strong educational backgrounds and being well informed about dyslexia.

Although depression rates appear to be higher among girls with dyslexia compared to boys, among dyslexic boys the percentage labeled as being depressed decreased with age: 13.4 percent at seven years old, 7.1 percent at ten years old, and 2.5 percents at age 13. This suggests that reading disabilities were strongly associated with short-term depression, but not long-term depression.

Learning disabilities and anxiety

It has been reported that up to 25 percent of children with learning disabilities meet diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder. Heightened anxiety can be due to a student’s sense that scholastic demands are beyond their control, and therefore anticipatory anxiety levels may be high. Kids lacking in confidence in their ability to perform academically worry about failing and being held back, and rely on a teacher’s help with most tasks because they don’t believe they can master an assignment on their own.

Often, an adolescent with learning difficulties will express the anxiety “somatically,” or by physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches and fatigue. Some believe the children with learning disabilities use these complaints to avoid the work, by being excused to go to the nurse or sent home. Others suggest these physical signs of distress are unconscious attempts to get help and support from others. Avoidance is a common behavioral manifestation of anxiety.

Anxiety disorder occurs when the intensity of anxiety symptoms is disproportionate to the potential for harm. It entails increased levels of arousal, which has the effect of disorganizing a student’s performance, rather than facilitating it. Studies have revealed that there is a higher prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder in people with learning disabilities. Symptoms include:


  • Fearful anticipation
  • Irritability
  • Concentration and memory problems
  • Repetitive worrying thoughts
  • Panic


  • Dry mouth
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Flushing
  • Sweating
  • Pallor
  • Palpitations
  • Tremor
  • Hyperventilation
  • Chest pain and tightness
  • Headache
  • Backache
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle tension
  • Diarrhea
  • Heightened startle response
  • Insomnia
  • Stomachache

Treatment for mood disorders related to learning disabilities

The treatment for depression and anxiety in people with diagnosed learning disabilities parallels that in the rest of the population. Effective interventions including cognitive behavioral therapy, relaxation techniques, and medication have proven to assist students who struggle with these disorders associated with their learning disability.

Ongoing interventions provided by an adolescent’s medical practitioners, therapists, school staff, and family will assist the student in navigating their school years with a learning disability. Accommodations at home and school that reduce sources of stress for the child, combined with open, collaborative communication between the family, school, and treatment professionals will optimize the quality of life for these students.

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