The Link Between Learning Disabilities and Depression

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While nearly everyone experiences feelings of sadness and periods of "the blues," people with learning disabilities are at greater risk of developing clinical depression than the general population.

In fact, the stress of coping with a learning disability may lead to more frustration in life that can give rise to episodes of depression.

In most cases, these feelings pass with time and positive coping strategies, such as staying active and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Sometimes, people with learning disabilities have a harder time getting through these periods and need extra help and support.

The Medical Definition of Depression

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) provides a specific definition of clinical depression.

The DSM-5 states that to be diagnosed with depression, a person must have at least five of the following symptoms on a daily basis for at least two weeks:

  • Depressed mood lasting throughout the day, and especially in the morning
  • Feelings of persistent tiredness
  • Feelings of low self-worth and excessive guilt
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Inability to sleep or the desire to sleep too much
  • Loss of interest in activities the person used to enjoy
  • Inability to relax or marked restlessness
  • Slowness in movement
  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Signs of Clinical Depression

When youth and adults with learning disabilities experience feelings of sadness, a sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness that last for more than a few days or are very intense, it may indicate clinical depression.

Clinical depression is a pervasive disorder that can affect many aspects of a person's overall health and wellbeing. In addition to the emotional symptoms, depression can also make it harder to focus, remember information, and make decisions.

Seeing a doctor for these symptoms is important because other conditions, such as attention deficit disorder, can have the same or similar symptoms as depression but need to be treated in a different way.

Learning disabilities can lead children to feel misunderstood, different, or alienated from classmates. All of these feelings can foster depression.

Feelings of guilt and worthlessness can occur with learning disabilities and with clinical depression alike.

A medical professional can determine if clinical depression or other conditions are a factor. They can also ascertain whether depression and a learning disability coexist. 

A Word From Verywell

People with learning disabilities who experience symptoms of depression need to discuss them with their doctor. A qualified medical professional can determine the cause of the symptoms, which may be from depression and coexisting learning disabilities, or another medical or mental health condition.

Early intervention and healthy coping mechanisms are key to preventing depression in youth with learning disabilities. In addition to parents, doctors, and mental health professionals, school personnel (such as counselors) can also give students with learning disabilities guidance and support.

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  1. Maag JW, Reid R. Depression among students with learning disabilities: assessing the risk. J Learn Disabil. 2006;39(1):3-10. doi:10.1177/00222194060390010201

  2. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Washington D.C.: 2013.

  3. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Washington D.C.: 2013.

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