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Research results: Depression in children with learning disabilities

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By John W. Maag, Ph.D.

Watch for symptoms of depression at home and at school

My colleagues and I have advocated for years for parents who have children with LD to become familiar with the symptoms of depression so that any problems might be identified early on. Depression is much more than the occasional feelings of sadness that we all have from time to time. A person who experiences most or all of the symptoms listed below for more than two weeks can find it extremely difficult to face even the slightest bump in normal day-to-day activities.

Depression is a condition characterized by:

  • extreme feelings of sadness
  • lack of interest or pleasure in most or all activities
  • significant weight gain or loss
  • sleeping too little or too much
  • restlessness or exhaustion
  • low energy
  • feeling worthless
  • difficulty concentrating, and
  • thoughts of suicide

Note: Only a qualified mental health professional can make use of these symptoms to diagnose depression in your child.

We've also advocated that schools take a greater role in identifying children with LD who may be depressed and developing ways to help them. Children spend more time in school than in most structured environments outside the home, and have their most consistent and extensive contact with teachers. Furthermore, children's behaviors, their interactions with others, and academic performance — all important indicators of mood and the ability to cope — are easily observed in school. Therefore, it is not unusual for educators to be the first people to notice problems developing.

However, as a parent, you need to stay in regular contact with your child's school and ask several important questions:

  • Is my child making academic progress, performing about the same, or doing worse?
  • Is my child interacting positively with others or is he withdrawing?
  • Does my child appear to be happy during school or sad?
  • Does my child appear tired or seem to have adequate energy?
  • Does my child seem to have a positive or negative attitude toward school?

A combination of answers to these questions that he is doing worse academically, withdrawn, sad, tired, and has a negative attitude are red flags that you should consider having your child evaluated for depression by a licensed clinician.

Remember, schools will not typically contact you when your child is having trouble in these areas. This is because children with depression do not usually engage in the acting out behaviors that would place them in conflict with the school. You need to be proactive and persistent to get this information from schools — even if your child is receiving special education services.

What to do if your child with LD seems depressed

Clearly, children with LD can and do experience depression. There are several things we can do to help them. The most important thing is to become familiar with the symptoms of depression and get your child in to see a psychiatrist or psychologist if you suspect problems are developing.

Once a diagnosis of depression has been made, there are several treatment options. The best option is usually a combination of medication and psychotherapy. You should also work in conjunction with your child's school for two reasons:

  • Teachers can play an important role in identifying (but not diagnosing) children who may be depressed.
  • If your insurance does not cover psychotherapy services or you cannot afford them and your child is receiving special education under the federal category of learning disability, he may be entitled to counseling as a related service under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

There is no reason for any child to suffer from depression when effective treatments are available. Through your efforts, and in conjunction with the school, your child can receive the treatment he needs and deserves.

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. "