Millions of people around the world struggle with managing their mental health. Depression and anxiety are widespread, and feelings of stress are ever-present. These conditions impact everyone, but they intersect with one community in some unique ways.
“Neurodiversity” is a broad term that represents the different ways that people think, move, behave, communicate, or process information. In its modern usage, neurodiversity typically refers to autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, or a host of other conditions and learning disabilities.
Many neurodivergent people have found ways to utilize their traits positively, such as becoming extremely good with numbers or expressing unique creativity. However, these conditions typically come with many challenges, especially in navigating certain professional and social situations.
Because of these challenges, neurodivergent mental health issues can differ from neurotypical ones. When they understand these differences, those who have these conditions are able to seek and receive the mental health supports that they need.
Neurodiversity and Mental Health
A large body of evidence has found higher rates of mental health symptoms among neurodiverse populations. What is the exact nature of this relationship? It can depend on the condition. Below we take a closer look, by exploring the mental health symptoms that can occur alongside common diagnoses.
Dyslexia involves difficulty processing language. Most people associate dyslexia with spelling and proofreading issues, but it can cause many other challenges. Some people struggle to process information, such as how speech sounds relate to letters and words. Beyond that, many individuals with dyslexia find it difficult to focus on any task involving reading and writing.
Because these difficulties overwhelmingly affect school and professional work, those with dyslexia often struggle with self-esteem. Classmates and colleagues often assume a person is less intellectually capable because of their condition, despite dyslexia having nothing to do with a person’s intelligence. Because of this and the difficulty dyslexia can pose, some individuals—especially children and young adults—tend to feel like they’re falling behind, causing them to feel isolated and inadequate.
And, as is the case with many neurodivergent people, there is no underplaying the presence of anxiety and depression in the lives of people with dyslexia. These two conditions are frequently comorbid with each other and the various conditions that fall under the neurodiversity umbrella.
Feelings of anxiety or depression tend to hit when there is a looming deadline or a major project involving reading and writing. However, some people have such powerful anxiety that the mere thought of working with letters and words causes panic.
Additionally, some people view dyslexia as a “minor” condition and think that it should be easier to manage. While this is an unrealistic viewpoint, its effects are very real and can have a mental health impact.
Dyspraxia is also known as developmental coordination disorder. At its core, dyspraxia is a neurodevelopmental condition that starts in childhood and makes it difficult to perform motor skills. It also frequently causes problems with coordination. What this actually looks like varies between people and age groups. Most people show major symptoms by the time they enter school, though dyspraxia can also be extremely subtle, causing many people to dismiss the symptoms as simply being clumsy.
Physical activities like sports, drawing, or using scissors may be difficult, and many people with dyspraxia will actively avoid them. Additionally, those who have dyspraxia are also more likely to have other conditions—like ADHD or autism spectrum disorder.
Because motor skills are so visible, people with dyspraxia are often the targets of jokes or outright bullying. Even good-natured comments between friends can still have a massive impact on someone’s mental health. Lower self-esteem and feelings of incompetence are widespread among the dyspraxia population. These feelings also have links to greater aggressiveness and hyperactivity.
As one might expect, anxiety and depression are also common in those with dyspraxia.
ADHD is simultaneously one of the most well-known and misunderstood forms of neurodiversity. Everyone has moments where they can’t focus or have unfocused motor activity or act impulsively. For people with ADHD, these moments are much more severe, happen more often, and tend to impact their relationships, schooling, and work.
Some individuals with ADHD may mainly have symptoms of inattention, while others may primarily have symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity. Some people may even have both.
Inattention refers to an inability to remain on task or stay focused. This isn’t an act of defiance or a lack of comprehension, but rather a neurological difficulty.
Hyperactivity describes a person who moves about frequently, especially in inappropriate moments. Everyone has unique forms of hyperactivity, and it may involve talking too much, fidgeting, or tapping.
Impulsivity involves acting without thinking or struggling with self-control. An impulsive action could be interrupting someone else or making an important decision without considering the long-term consequences.
Ultimately, the mental health struggles of people with ADHD are extremely variable—just like the symptoms. As in the cases of dyslexia or dyspraxia, ADHD can cause a person to struggle in fields where they feel like they should succeed, leading to diminished self-worth.
Because people with ADHD are often extremely aware of their symptoms, they may experience depression in response to feeling out of control or overwhelmed. In extreme cases, this might even lead to self-hatred. According to modern studies, nearly three in 10 children with ADHD have anxiety disorders.
Researchers have attempted to locate the gene responsible for ADHD and have identified several candidates, which are also linked to psychological issues like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression.
The Autism Spectrum
Another of the well-known and misunderstood conditions that together describe neurodiversity, autism spectrum disorder is a complex condition that can involve many symptoms, including:
- Difficulties in social interaction
- Verbal or non-verbal communication struggles
- Repetitive behavior
- Restricted interests
- Extreme sensitivity or insensitivity to sensory stimuli
- Insistence on adhering to a routine
As a spectrum disorder, every person’s experience with autism will be different. Some people on the spectrum have minor issues and can live on their own without assistance, while others may have symptoms that dramatically impair their day-to-day lives.
Just like the other neurodiverse conditions, rates of depression and anxiety are higher among those on the autism spectrum. Research also shows that in many cases, these conditions don’t necessarily originate from autism itself, but from how others view and treat the condition and those who live with it.
Beyond the well-known mental health struggles, autism also has links to higher rates of gender dysphoria, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and personality disorders. Each of these conditions introduces its own set of complex mental health problems that will affect every person differently.
Considering the Needs of Neurodivergent People
Neurodiversity is a very large umbrella. That makes it impossible to effectively address the mental health needs of the group as a whole. The very point of neurodiversity is recognizing the incredible variability of the human brain and the results that these differences can have.
Addressing neurodivergent mental health needs means advocating for inclusive language, improving knowledge about these conditions, and challenging the social barriers that are responsible for a large amount of stress.
On the individual level, we already understand the importance of avoiding a one-size-fits-all mentality for treating depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. Some of the tried and true methods will work for those with conditions like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia. In other cases, treatment may involve changing environments or building a plan that suits the condition more. Approaching this topic without care could cause a patient undue stress and even worsen their mental health.
If you have a neurodiverse condition or have a loved one who does, know that it is possible to find mental health support. At FHE Health, we pride ourselves for being able to provide integrated mental healthcare that addresses the medical needs of the whole person. If you have questions about how we can help you or a loved one, contact us online or by calling today.