By John W. Maag, Ph.D.
Depression can affect anyone, including children. It is one of the few conditions whose symptoms, such as feeling sad, have been experienced by most of us at some time in our lives. Who cannot admit to feeling "bummed out" in response to certain situations? Yet the clinical "syndrome" (a group of symptoms experienced together) of depression represents a disorder that can have a negative impact on almost all aspects of an individual's life.
Children with learning disabilities (LD), in particular, have been the focus of almost 30 years of research on depression. When early studies were conducted in the 1970s, there were three reasons why children with LD were believed to be at greater risk for depression than children without LD:
Subsequently, researchers realized that low self-esteem and academic underachievement were conditions that affected many children, not just those who were depressed or those with LD. Also, it has been very difficult to pinpoint specific neurological causes for both depression and LD. Therefore, more accurate information was needed about the extent and impact of depression on children with LD.
Because public schools are mandated by law to provide services to children with LD, school was the logical place to begin looking at depression in these children. I began studying depression in children with LD in 1986. Through my research, and that of others during the 1980s and 1990s, it appeared that about 5% to 20% of children with LD experienced symptoms of depression. These figures were much higher than the acknowledged 2% rate for children without LD. But what the research didn't tell us was whether children with LD experienced clinical depression at a rate higher than that experienced by the general population.
To answer this question, Bob Reid, my colleague at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and I collected every study conducted on depression in children with LD since 1977 when it became a federal category of disability. We reviewed 18 studies — all of which administered a "depression inventory" to children in the school setting. (Three of these studies were omitted because they didn't meet important criteria for statistical analysis.) We reached three major conclusions from our review and analysis:
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