Learning disabilities are often assumed to only affect children — especially when it comes to performance in school. But learning disabilities in adults can also be particularly impactful, especially as a condition that frequently coincides with mental health disorders including depression, anxiety and others.
In this piece, we’ll explore some of the key differences between learning disabilities and mental health disorders, why they frequently occur at the same time and why these cases should be treated in a specialized way.
Defining a Learning Disability
A learning disability (LD) is a condition in which a person has difficulty processing information, affecting their cognition. There are three core learning disabilities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Dyslexia. Difficulty reading and processing words or letters in the proper order.
- Dysgraphia. Difficulty writing words and letters.
- Dyscalculia. Difficulty processing mathematical calculations.
People with learning disabilities may have trouble in school or at work, causing them to fall behind the progress and abilities of their peers. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is often labeled a learning disability because it affects many of the same areas, but it technically belongs to a different category of condition.
Is Dyslexia a Mental Disability?
Many people include LDs with developmental disabilities like Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While these disabilities can produce many of the same outcomes, they’re grouped separately and require different treatment, especially in children.
While people with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities also have issues processing information or social cues, they tend to be more universal. A person with a learning condition could otherwise be extremely intelligent but struggle mightily to process concepts in a math class, for example.
Is a Learning Disability a Mental Illness?
Learning disabilities are often inaccurately lumped in with mental illnesses. A person with a learning disability has difficulty processing certain types of information, while a person suffering from a mental health disorder can experience a wide range of symptoms depending on the specifics of their case.
Additionally, medication and psychotherapy are looked at as the best method of treatment for people experiencing mental health issues. In contrast, learning disabilities are resistant to medication and are typically a lifelong challenge for the individuals who face them.
How Learning Disabilities in Adults Can Impact Mental Health
The links between learning disabilities and mental health aren’t limited to one or two cases. There’s a wide range of ways that living with a learning disability can negatively impact a person’s mental health.
For example, people who have learning or intellectual disabilities may be at higher risk for childhood trauma. Bullying and abuse can be leveled at children who appear to be “slow” or “weird” compared to more neurotypical peers when they struggle in a specific school subject or area. Early-life trauma is commonly linked to both mental and behavioral health disorders later on.
Additionally, people with learning disabilities may find themselves feeling isolated or frustrated due to feeling “different” from those around them. LDs can also negatively impact social development in children, but even in adulthood, individuals may find it difficult to cope with being unable to absorb or retain information as easily as their peers and coworkers.
Persistent frustration, loneliness and low self-esteem are known to bring on or worsen mental health conditions like anxiety, depression and a range of mood disorders.
The Importance of Identifying and Addressing Learning Disabilities
Because living with a learning problem can have negative effects stemming from an early age, it’s important to understand how to recognize and identify the earliest signs of learning disabilities.
People with learning disabilities will exhibit issues in behavior and cognitive function during childhood. The severity or frequency will depend on the specifics of the case. These issues include difficulties in:
- Reading aloud
- Understanding directions
- Recognizing patterns
- Retaining or following instructions
- Tasks that take a high degree of hand-eye coordination
- Memory problems
- Writing clearly and readably
It’s important to note that these symptoms may be present due not to a learning disorder but to other mental health or developmental issues. However, learning to recognize these signs is beneficial, no matter what the cause. Whether it’s ASD, ADHD, a developmental disability, a learning disability or something else entirely, it’s likely a child exhibiting these behaviors needs special attention and assistance in overcoming their issues.
When learning disabilities in adults persist without being addressed or accounted for, they can have deeper impacts that affect their lives more and more over time.
Challenges Associated With Treating Dual-Diagnosed Disorders
When adults with learning disorders enter treatment for one or more mental health conditions, they usually can’t be effectively treated outside the context of their LD.
This is true of all dual diagnosis — also called co-occurring disorder — treatment. Any time multiple conditions overlap, one can make the other resistant to treatment or cause it to become worse. This makes these cases more challenging and certainly necessitates a change in approach.
Taking an Individualized Approach for Patients With Learning Disabilities
If most learning disabilities are already resistant to the treatment methods used in mental health therapy programs, does it mean adults with learning disabilities can never fully recover from their mental health condition?
The answer, of course, is no. It does suggest, however, that some treatment plans will be more effective than others. For example, talk therapy may be less effective for anyone whose learning disability (or developmental issue) affects their communication skills. Keeping a journal in treatment likely won’t be as helpful for people who are dysgraphic as it can be for “neurotypical” clients.
Taking an Individualized Approach to Mental Wellness at FHE Health
At FHE Health, we understand that while many mental or behavioral health conditions may look alike, it’s rare for two cases to be exactly the same. That’s why we take the time to understand exactly what each client is facing so we can meet them where they are and provide care on the level that will effect positive change.
When learning disabilities in adults make treatment more complex, help is available. If you or a loved one feel like you need treatment for your mental health, contact us and learn about all your options.