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Research results: Depression in children with learning disabilities

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By John W. Maag, Ph.D.

Unanswered questions about depression and children with learning disabilities

There are several areas in which we simply do not know the answer when it comes to depression and children with LD:

  • We do not know if children with LD experience clinical depression in greater numbers than their non-disabled peers. The reason that these data haven't been collected is because a depressive disorder can only be diagnosed by a psychiatrist or psychologist after conducting a thorough clinical interview. The time involved and the number of clinicians required to administer clinical interviews to a large random sample of children with and without LD would be astronomical.
  • We do not currently know what causes depression. Theories abound, but none are conclusive. In all likelihood, depression probably involves hereditary, neurological, and environmental components.
  • We don't know exactly how accurately depression rating scales can predict whether a child with a high score would receive a clinical diagnosis of depression.

To explain the third point further, several commonly used paper-and-pencil rating scales or "depression inventories" are an important element of a clinician's diagnosis of depression. Most of these inventories are of the self-report variety. That means that a child is given a rating scale, reads the questions, and marks the one(s) that most accurately describes how he or she is feeling. Here is a sample item:

0 I am sad once in a while.
1 I am sad many times.
2 I am sad all the time.

After reading each item, the child circles the number (0, 1, or 2) next to the statement that best describes how he is feeling.

However, a diagnosis of depression should never be made solely on the basis of a score from a rating scale for at least two reasons:

  • In some cases, there are no significant differences between the scores of children who are and are not depressed.
  • There is a tremendous difference in scores even among children who have been clinically diagnosed as depressed.

In spite of this, these self-report rating scales have been the main way that information on depression among children with LD has been gathered. This fact raises further questions about the validity of the research to date on whether children with LD are more likely to be depressed than their non-disabled peers. Parents should view critically, if not skeptically, most of the studies examining depression among children with LD.

It's also important to note that, although research is inconclusive on several aspects of depression among children with LD, the news media often paint a very different picture. Parents may assume from what they read, hear, or see in the media that there is an indisputable connection between LD and higher rates of depression in children. As we know, news media are often interested in sensationalizing problems; they look for quick answers and rarely cover stories that contradict initial pronouncements. This makes it very important for parents to be informed consumers and sift through the nonsense and hype that media can report on the problem.

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. "