The Relationship between Learning Disability and Mental Illness

Contrary to common misconception, learning disabilities are not a form of mental illness: in fact, both terms have very specific meanings and suggest entirely different forms of intervention.  Mental illnesses can appear in almost anyone at any time, and can present symptoms that respond well to treatment.  Learning disabilities remain largely consistent throughout the lifespan.  However, research suggests that mental health issues may be more prevalent in individuals with learning disabilities than in the general population. 



Why are people with learning disabilities more likely to have mental health issues?


Several factors may increase the likelihood of individuals with learning disabilities to develop mental health problems, including biology, negative life events, lack of support, or even discrimination.  


People with learning disabilities are more likely to experience negative life events as a result of poverty, neglect, or abuse.  They are less likely to receive social support for conditions such as depression or anxiety, but more likely to endure trauma or stress.  Additionally, when people with learning disabilities experience trauma, they have less access to appropriate care and are less likely to cope in productive ways.



What does internalized discrimination do to a person’s mental health?


Individuals with learning disabilities face “stigmas,” or disapproval against their perceived distinguishing characteristics.  There are three types of stigma that may result in mental health issues: public stigma, self-stigma, and institutional stigma.


Public stigma may consist of microaggressions from neurotypical people experienced during day-to-day life.  People with learning disabilities have to face misconceptions so often, they may begin to internalize others’ negative attitudes, resulting in self-stigma.  These symptoms are further compounded by systemic obstacles to disability services or mental health treatment, a.k.a. institutional stigma.



Why are mental health issues less often recognized in people with learning disabilities?


Although people with learning disabilities are almost twice as likely to develop mental health issues than the general population, there is a significant division between disability and mental health services.  Their symptoms may be misattributed to the disability rather than additional mental health problems.  


Even in the world of psychology, assessments that diagnose mental health issues are often better suited to neurotypical patients than those with learning disabilities.



What treatments are available?


There are several forms of effective treatment available for individuals with learning disabilities, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, family therapy, interventions, and medications.  When tailored to the patient’s unique needs, treatment can alleviate the distressing symptoms of mental health issues.










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