When LD Collides with Mental Health

When I wrote “An Elephant in the LD Room” my intention was to start highlighting four main realities:

1. How hurt, shame, anger. depression and self-abuse can become a part of the lives of children and adults with learning disabilities,

2. As a result of #1, schooling to address the remediation of the learning difficulties will need a more therapeutic/clinical focus than solely an academic one.

3. Now that there are many, many more therapeutic schools and wilderness programs that advertise and market themselves as being suited for kids with various learning disabilities, I wanted to get involved in a discussion about schools and programs that actually deliver on those claims.

4. I acknowledge that this is a controversial and important subject because lives are at stake.  When a college list is created for a student with a learning disability, there’s a significant need to get that right, but when looking at matching needs to programs with therapeutic/clinical environments, when students have begun to struggle and mess with self harm, depression, drugs, and the like, the need to get it as right as possible becomes much more critical.

Don’t you think?

A  reminder:  I’m not  saying that learning disabilities cause emotional and mental health issues.  In fact some of the most creative successful and healthy people and kids I know have learning disabilities.

It’s just that the risk factors are there and can’t be ignored.

Last week I visited some wilderness therapy programs and specialized schools that combine clinical expertise with an informed and sensitive understanding of learning disabilities.  I had some eye opening experiences.


About Sanford

Learning Disabilities specialist and Educational Consultant
This entry was posted in Learning Disabilities and Mental Health, Shapiro Looks at K-12 Schools. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to When LD Collides with Mental Health

  1. Richard says:

    I would say that the social and emotional consequence that can result from having a learning disability in a hostile or less than supportive environment have a larger impact on performance than the LD itself.

    I am saying that learning disabilities can cause social and emotional problems. Not always of course, but one can cause the other when the environment the LD person is in is less than supportive.

    Sorting this stuff out: differentiating the LD from the emotional problems is a very important starting point. Before a student gets to these schools the psychologist or consultant or both need to be certain that schools of this type are a good fit for the student in question.

    I think your reviews of these schools will be extremely useful for parents and the theraputic community Sandy.

  2. Sanford says:

    Thanks for your comments.

    ” the social and emotional consequence that can result from …in a hostile or less than supportive environment have a larger impact on performance than the LD itself.”

    Agreed. No one can overstate what that can do over time. There’s an awful (and not new) study I heard about recently that was one of the ones that led to the term “learned helplessness” and your comments about a hostile or unsupportive environment remind me of it.

    Essentially rats are let go in a maze (what else) and getting through it leads to the prize (food). One rat is supported or allowed to get through. The other rat is not. As he tries to make his way, he is frequently grasped by human hands and has his progress thwarted, no matter how much he wriggles. Effort towards progress is met with impediment and frustration. This happens enough to where the second part is as follows:

    The same rats are then put into a tub of water. The first guy assesses the situation, paddles a few times and gets to the side, and safety. The other rat has unfortunately “learned” that his efforts do not matter. He flails a bit and sinks, not even attempting to save himself.

    This is chilling to me. I’m not being dramatic. Every time I think of it I understand that this is where and how kids who are struggling in unsupported and demeaning environments (including at times, home) start to develop what in the literature (LD) is termed “an external locus of control” (meaning they don’t perceive their efforts matter). That leads to diminished appreciation for their successes and a misjudging of their failures. This is a clear path towards either perpetual victimhood or acting out behavior.

    In the literature it’s presented (that’s how I’ve read it) as being part of the neurological syndrome of learning disabilities.

    I think it’s learned. And that’s a very dangerous thing to perceive/learn. That’s a tape that can get re-run in your head for a long time.

    If you read some Richard’s , you (or others) personal stories here at this site, you’ll hear how one gets out of that mode, by finding some things that you persevere through (like putting together a VW Bug engine) and get results. That’s where you start to unlearn and relearn.

    Richard you are spot on here and very astute. You said: …”differentiating the LD from the emotional problems is a very important starting point. Before a student gets to these schools the psychologist or consultant or both need to be certain that schools of this type are a good fit for the student in question.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I would say it is really important for a family to work with a consultant who really understands the nuances of learning variations, as well as whatever other situations and conditions are present AND to know the schools. Combining that with a quality psychologist is how to begin to create some important safeguards you and I have alluded to.

  3. Richard says:

    Because of the stigma associated with mental illness, coupled with the stigma associated with learning disabilities this is an area ripe with all sorts of issues.

    Sorting the issues out is essential as is making a triage list of the order in which to deal with them.

    If someone is at risk of harming themselves, working on basic language skills may have to take a back seat… however, if low self-esteem caused by illiteracy is a cause of the person wanting to harm themselves…

    I’ll be following your research and clarification of this area closely Sanford, it’s an area that needs a lot of daylight shed on it.

  4. Sanford says:

    Yes, important issues and long needed discussion.

  5. Stephanie says:

    What are your recommendations for getting help with this very issue? My son “got by” all the way thru public school and is now struggling to find his way – college, career, etc. I see #1 in him and unfortunately I am realizing I have let him down as a parent.

  6. Sanford says:

    Thanks for writing in.

    Of course, without knowing more specific info about your son, I can only make some general comments:

    You said he fits in #1: “How hurt, shame, anger. depression and self-abuse can become a part of the lives of children and adults with learning disabilities…”

      Begin by finding a therapist/counselor who is very aware of how learning disabilities impacts emotional well-being.

      Make certain that his diagnosis goes beyond labels.

      A good evaluation/report should include clear and easy to understand language that describes how his LD impacts him functionally.

      His evaluation should absolutely include the other side of his learning profile, his strengths. Strengths and affinities are where confidence and motivation can spring from.

      He needs to come to terms with his strengths as well as his weaknesses/challenges and from there develop a plan that lays out how to climb out from any depression, etc.

      Any therapy should align with how he processes information. For example, if he’s an active, visual and experiential learner, finding a therapist who is willing to get out from behind a desk and walk is good. If he has language and word retrieval disorders, he would probably do better with a more experiential delivery mode that is activity based rather than over-reliance on “talk therapy.”

      Cognitive-based therapies can be useful as well, in that they can help someone address their thinking, and is more strategy-based.

      What else can you tell me about him that’s fit this public arena?

  7. Annie says:

    What should someone looking for a job do when they have clear & noticeable learning disabilities & mental illnesses (listed below)?

    LDs: ADD, Auditory Processing Disorder
    MI: Generalized/Social Anxiety Disorder, Bipolar Disorder

    The Auditory Processing & Anxiety are the most problematic. Communication is difficult, but marketing is preferred occupation. Panic attacks are rare, but always come at the worst times.

    Therapy is not a solution due to too many years of trial & error.

    Medications currently in use.

    Any suggestions???

  8. I agree with everyone who has posted so far. I just spoke with the psychologist who is doing a psych-ed evaluation for one of my students who has some serious emotional and behavioral issues. These issues have their origins in the frustrations the student has felt over the years as a result of the learning disabilities. Not everyone with learning disabilities develops other problems, but it is most certainly a risk factor. So now, before we can address the academic issues, we have to change the self-defeating, learned helplessness and help the student to once again become empowered. Unfortunately, I see this pattern repeated over and over again. It is so important that these kids have parents who are their advocates, and are willing to change direction if the school they attend cannot meet their needs.

  9. Sanford says:

    Thanks for writing in. It’s hard for parents, especially when they see their kids in turmoil, to recognize where one factor (e.g. coping skills, family issues) ends and another (e.g. LD issues) begins. That’s where having an excellent team is vital.

    As you say, parental advocacy is really important and one way that can be expressed is by putting that team together.

    You and I are both educational consultants who do special needs placement work. I’m sure you’ll agree that there are consultants who know both kids and programs and some who mainly know placements.

    When you have high risk and complex kids, a formulaic approach even when well-intentioned, will fall short.

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