Collaboration: Partnering with Peers, Families and Caregivers to Promote Student Success - NCLD (2023)

To the community of people with learning disabilities and our allies,

Our students are in a mental health crisis that disproportionately affects students with learning disabilities. A 2019 CDC report showed that 33% of high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. That number rose to 44% during the pandemic. For those of us in the learning disability community, mental health issues permeate our daily lives. The limited research we have supports a strong correlation between learning disabilities and mental health disorders. For example, one study found that people with learning disabilities were twice as likely to report mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts than their nondisabled peers, even after accounting for potential confounding factors. Another meta-analytic study shows different comorbidity rates from 8% to 46.3% for ADHD and anxiety in students with AD.

However, the causal relationship between mental health and learning disabilities is poorly understood. The topic of mental health rates in the DA community has been a recurring theme in conversations among members of the Young Adult Leadership Council, where for many of us mental health issues are woven into our DA stories. We are writing this letter first as a thank you to the LD community, second to raise awareness of this issue in a broader global community, and third to invite parents, teachers, policy makers, and researchers to help us solve this problem.

In general, poor mental health is associated with decision-making challenges, difficulties in school, difficulties forming positive relationships, and other risky or potentially harmful behaviors. Dual disability diagnoses pose even greater challenges, as many people experience stress, anxiety, trauma, bullying, internalized issues, and feelings of social isolation while navigating a world of learning disabilities and mental health disorders. These negative experiences are particularly concerning given that almost a third of inmates have a learning disability and around half of inmates have mental health problems.

“Not having been diagnosed as an adult until recently, I never understood why I struggled the way I did. However, after my diagnosis, I realized that my bouts of anxiety and depression contributed to my perfectionism and impulsive decisions. People not diagnosed with ADHD face the harsh reality of being vulnerable to depression and anxiety. It could lead someone down the path of substance abuse and impulsive decision making that can have serious consequences. Living in a world where people don't understand people with attention problems can make you feel like there's something inherently wrong with you, which can also contribute to depression."
– Misha Nicholas

We know that students with AD report more mental health problems. However, this is the scope of the investigation. We do not know the cause of these lower rates of mental health in students with learning disabilities. Anecdotal accounts of students with AD suggest that many experience educational trauma. We need research to know the magnitude and impact of this educational trauma. Is parenting trauma a risk factor for poor mental health?

As members and advocates of the Young Adult Leadership Council (YALC) of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, we believe it is imperative to begin a solution-oriented mental health initiative that focuses on the intersectionality of learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. mental health. Many of us navigate life as people with learning disabilities struggling with mental health. Research suggests that fostering a sense of belonging and social support from peers in schools can protect people with learning disabilities from many documented negative outcomes. However, many of us experience various forms of educational trauma throughout our upbringing in the form of persistent academic failure, feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, bullying, social isolation, and ridicule. Educational trauma refers to the ongoing pattern of damaging cycles within educational systems that negatively affect academic and emotional outcomes.

“The humiliation, harassment and systematic exclusion was indescribably shocking. Eventually, the school trauma I was experiencing became a bigger barrier to learning than my actual learning disability."
- Erin

Many young adults with learning disabilities describe their K-12 educational experiences as traumatic. You describe the feeling of being misunderstood. They often report that those around them did not understand their learning and mental health problems because they lacked the words to describe the shame they felt toward the adults and peers in their lives. These struggles extend far beyond weaknesses in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Mental health and learning disabilities are intertwined, and these challenges accompany people with learning disabilities as they make the transition from high school to post-secondary education and the workplace.

"It wasn't until I was an undergraduate that I learned that it's not normal to feel like you can't breathe every time you start your homework."
– Stevie Mays

Many people with learning disabilities report feeling unsafe and that they don't belong in the classroom. When you talk to almost anyone with a learning disability, they will tell you that their learning disability has affected them far beyond their struggle with study skills like math and reading. They will tell you that being a person with a learning disability affects a person's entire experience of the world, how the world interacts with them, and how they interact with the world. Yes, it is important to us to help DA students in academic areas like reading and writing. But if we don't look beyond the academics to the whole person, we miss a whole aspect of the learning disabled experience. We miss what it really means to exist as a person with a learning disability.

"At the age of 16, while everyone around me wrote in fine calligraphy, I felt like a child still writing with red chalk. No matter what I wrote or how well I wrote, I was not allowed to belong."
– Brody

What are you personally doing to better understand and address the experiences of the learning disability community and why our peers are being pushed out of schools, into the prison system, into low-wage careers and, at best, cases, to university environments that do not t? don't support us?

We need to talk about mental illness for what it is: a disability. A disability that deserves the same support and attention as dyslexia, ADHD and other learning disabilities.

Our dyslexia, anxiety, ADHD, depression, dysgraphia, PTSD, and more are disabilities that need support, understanding, and acceptance. Many of us at YALC say that finding the LD community was key to feeling like we finally understood each other and were able to get out of our shame. We found strength in our shared experiences and were able to name many of our experiences for what they were: educational trauma. In doing so, we find our voice, not just to share our stories, but to speak up for our community as a whole.

For the LD person reading this, we see and empathize with your struggles. We encourage you to reach out to your LD community and embrace your disability identity. The disability plate (including mental health and learning disabilities) gives you access to support and treatment. It also comes with a community that wants to welcome you.

Finally, this letter is a call to action: a call to our researchers, policymakers, educators, and parents and caregivers to better understand, address, and find solutions for the mental health needs of people with learning disabilities.


For researchers:

Include mental health as measures in your data collection and mental disabilities as covariates.

Explore educational trauma, including its prevalence and impact on students with learning disabilities.

Conduct holistic research on the experiences of LD students beyond our academic success and understand the implications for our non-academic lives.

Explore the intersection of mental health and learning disabilities and specifically the experiences of BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and historically marginalized groups.

Include people with AD in your research process, as well as being research subjects. Make sure that people with learning disabilities are part of the research design process. Get feedback from the LD community and make sure the research questions you ask align with the values ​​of the community you study. Hire LD people in your labs and centers so that a good percentage of the next generation of people studying LD will be LD themselves.

For policy makers:

Increase funding for early detection, treatment and psychological support in schools. We need well-funded school mental health programs, school psychologists, counselors, and social workers.

Follow through on your promise and fully fund IDEA after never doing so in over 40 years.

Ban seclusion and restraint practices that have harmed and oppressed students with disabilities for decades.

For educators:

Many of your students come to your classroom with years of educational trauma. you can finish it Focus on students' strengths while acknowledging our weaknesses and developing solutions, and listen as students bravely share their experiences.

Be aware of the links between mental health and learning disabilities and work with us to develop strategies that meet our needs and prevent negative outcomes.

Avoid using words like "lazy" when talking about your students with disabilities. We are not lazy. We do our best.

For parents and caregivers:

Talk to us about mental health and help us represent our identity as members of the disability community.

Look for early warning signs of mental health problems and teach us to be self-advocates so that when we are on our own we have the skills to advocate for ourselves and the things we need to learn successfully.

For the learning disabled community:

Accept your learning disability identity. Don't be afraid to use disability language. Taboo and stigma lead people to use euphemisms. But ultimately our legal rights and connection to the community depend on identifying as disabled. We can break the stigma and taboo around disability by embracing this community.

Be prepared to talk about how mental health is affecting you at school. We function in school systems that are not designed for us and that constantly "other" us. Allowing yourself support is the greatest gift you can give yourself. We know it's hard to stand out as a host, but you'll be glad you did.

Understand that both your DA and your mental health are advocates for themselves. This may seem like telling your parents and educators what you need in the classroom to be successful. This means going to the IEP meeting and making sure the accommodations meet your needs.

This call to action only scratches the surface of a larger conversation. Our vote counts. Please join us in amplifying this initiative by subscribing below.


Young Adult Leadership Council

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