To the intellectually disabled community and our allies,
Our students are in a mental health crisis that disproportionately affects students with learning disabilities. A 2019 CDC report showed that 33% of high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. That number rose to 44% during the pandemic. For those of us in the learning disability community, mental health issues permeate our daily lives. The limited research we have supports a strong correlation between learning disabilities and mental health disorders. For example, one study found that people with learning disabilities were twice as likely to report mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, than their non-disabled peers, even after accounting for potential confounders. Another meta-analytical study shows different comorbidity rates from 8% to 46.3% for ADHD and anxiety in students with AD.
However, the causal relationship between mental health and learning disabilities is poorly understood. The topic of rates of mental health in the AD community has been a recurring theme in conversations among members of the Young Adult Leadership Council, where, for many of us, mental health issues are woven into our AD stories. We are writing this letter first as a thank you to the LD community, second to raise awareness of this issue in the wider global community, and third to invite parents, teachers, policymakers and researchers to help us address this issue.
In general, poor mental health is associated with decision-making challenges, difficulties in school, difficulties forming positive relationships, and other risky or potentially harmful behaviors. Dual disability diagnoses pose even greater challenges as many people experience stress, anxiety, trauma, bullying, internalized issues and feelings of social isolation as they navigate a world of learning disabilities and mental health disorders. These negative experiences are particularly worrying given that nearly a third of inmates have learning difficulties and around half of inmates have mental health problems.
“Having not been diagnosed as an adult until recently, I never understood why I struggled the way I did. However, after my diagnosis, I realized that my bouts of anxiety and depression contributed to my perfectionism and impulsive decisions. People undiagnosed with ADHD face the harsh reality of being vulnerable to depression and anxiety. This can lead someone down the path of substance abuse and making impulsive decisions that can have serious consequences. Living in a world where people don't understand people with attention issues can make you feel like there's something inherently wrong with you, which can also contribute to depression."
- Misha Nicholas See More
We know that students with AD report more mental health problems. However, that is the scope of the investigation. We do not know the cause of these lower rates of mental health in students with learning disabilities. Anecdotal reports from students with AD suggest that many experience educational trauma. We need research to know the magnitude and impact of this educational trauma. Is parental trauma a risk factor for mental health problems?
As members and activists of the Young Adults Leadership Council (YALC) of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, we believe it is imperative to start a solution-oriented mental health initiative that focuses on the intersectionality of learning disabilities and learning disorders. mental health. Many of us navigate through life as people with learning disabilities struggling with mental health. Research suggests that promoting a sense of belonging and social support from peers in schools can protect people with learning disabilities from many documented negative outcomes. However, many of us experience various forms of educational trauma throughout our education in the form of persistent academic failure, feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, bullying, social isolation and ridicule. Educational trauma refers to the ongoing pattern of damaging cycles within educational systems that negatively affect academic and emotional outcomes.
“The humiliation, harassment and systematic exclusion was unspeakably shocking. Eventually, the school trauma I was experiencing became a greater barrier to learning than my actual learning disability."
Many young adults with learning disabilities describe their K-12 educational experiences as traumatic. You describe the feeling of being misunderstood. They often report that those around them did not understand their learning and mental health issues because they lacked the words to describe the shame they felt from the adults and peers in their lives. These struggles go far beyond weaknesses in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Mental health and learning disabilities are intertwined, and these challenges accompany people with learning disabilities as they transition from high school to post-secondary education and into the workplace.
"It wasn't until graduation that I learned that it's not normal to feel like you can't breathe every time you start your homework."
– Stevie Mays
Many people with learning difficulties report that they feel insecure and that they don't belong in the classroom. When you talk to almost anyone with a learning disability, they'll tell you that their learning disability has affected them far beyond their struggle with study skills like math and reading. They will tell you that being a person with an intellectual disability affects a person's whole experience of the world, how the world interacts with them and how they interact with the world. Yes, it is important to us to help DA students in academic areas such as reading and writing. But if we don't look beyond the academics to the whole person, we miss an entire aspect of the learning disabled experience. We miss what it really means to exist as a person with an intellectual disability.
"At 16, while everyone around me was writing in fine handwriting, I felt like a kid still writing with red chalk. It didn't matter what I wrote or how well I wrote it, I wasn't allowed to belong."
What are you personally doing to better understand and address the learning disability community's experiences and why our peers are being pushed out of schools, into the prison system, into low-paying careers and, at best, into university environments? isn't it? 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 attention as dyslexia, ADHD and other learning difficulties.
Our dyslexia, anxiety, ADHD, depression, dysgraphia, PTSD and more are disabilities that need support, understanding and acceptance. Many of us at YALC say that finding the LD community was the key to feeling like we finally understood each other and made it 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 find our voice, not just to share our stories, but to advocate for our community as a whole.
To the LD person reading this, we see and sympathize with your struggles. We encourage you to reach out to your LD community and embrace your disability identity. A disability board (including learning and mental health issues) gives you access to support and treatment. It also comes with a community that wants to welcome it.
Ultimately, this letter is a call to action: a call to our researchers, policymakers, educators, and parents and caregivers to better understand, address, and find solutions to the mental health needs of people with learning disabilities.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP!
Include mental health as measures in your data collection and mental disabilities as covariates.
Explore educational trauma, including its prevalence and impact on students with learning disabilities.
Conduct holistic research on LD students' experiences beyond our academic success and understand the implications for our non-academic lives.
Explore the intersection of mental health and learning disabilities, and specifically the experiences of BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and historically marginalized groups.
Include people with AD in your research process, in addition to being research subjects. Make sure people with learning disabilities are part of the survey design process. Get feedback from the LD community and make sure the research questions you ask align with the values of the community you study. Hire LD people in your labs and centers so that a good percentage of the next generation of people who study LD are also LD.
For policy makers:
Increase funding for early detection, treatment and psychological support in schools. We need well funded school mental health programs, school psychologists, counselors and social workers.
Make good on your promise and fully fund IDEA after never having done so in over 40 years.
Banning the confinement and restraint practices that have harmed and oppressed students with disabilities for decades.
Many of your students come to your classroom with years of educational trauma. you can finish it Focus on students' strengths, recognizing our weaknesses and developing solutions, and listen as students boldly share their experiences.
Be aware of the links between mental health and learning disabilities and work with us to develop strategies that address our needs and prevent negative outcomes.
Avoid using words like "lazy" when talking about your students with disabilities. We are not lazy. We do our best.
For parents and guardians:
Talk to us about mental health and help us represent our identity 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 are alone we have the skills to successfully advocate for ourselves and the things we need to learn.
For the community with intellectual disabilities:
Accept your learning disability identity. Don't be afraid to use disability language. Taboo and stigma lead people to use euphemisms. But ultimately, our legal rights and connection to the community depend on identifying ourselves as disabled. We can break the stigma and taboo around disability by embracing this community.
Be prepared to talk about how mental health is affecting you at school. We function in school systems that are not designed for us and that constantly "set us apart." Allowing yourself support is the greatest gift you can give yourself. We know it's hard to stand out as a host, but you'll be glad you did.
Understand that both your promoter and your mental health are advocates for themselves. This might seem like telling your parents and educators what you need in the classroom to be successful. That means going to the IEP meeting and making sure the accommodations meet your needs.
This call to action just scratches the surface of a larger conversation. Our vote counts. Please join us in amplifying this initiative by signing up below.
Young Adult Leadership Council