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Research results: Depression in children with learning disabilities

Dr. John Maag, an expert on depression in kids with learning disabilities, discusses research on the topic.

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:

  • Children with LD often experienced low self-esteem, which is a symptom of depression.
  • Children who were depressed tended to score lower on academic achievement tests, which is a defining characteristic of LD.
  • Both children with LD and those who were depressed were believed to have some type of neurological disturbance.

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:

  • Children with LD had statistically higher depression inventory scores than their non-disabled peers, but the magnitude of the difference between the two groups was not great.
  • Children with LD were at no greater risk for experiencing severe depression than their non-disabled peers.
  • Factors other than having an LD, such as gender, age, and ethnicity may contribute just as much, if not more, to a child experiencing depression. (We know, for example, that far fewer females have LD than males.)

Comments from readers

"My son is on the Autism Spectrum and suffers from high amounts of anxiety and depression. We find it hard to keep him out of the negative frame of mind that he seeks more aften than not. "
"Hello, Most of my childhood depression stemmed from the belief that if I was going to be good at anything than I had to start out by being the best at everything. While as only time will tell I was going to be awful at anything I tried. "