Depression and Learning Differences: What Is Effective Treatment?


Many individuals with learning differences also suffer from depression. In fact, research has been found that students with learning differences are at greater risk for depression than their non-disabled peers. (Maag. W John & Reid, 2006). This is also likely true for the adult population. There are ubiquitous treatments for depression, including the well-researched CBT, medication-assisted therapy, and other therapeutic approaches. However, individuals with learning differences face unique challenges that should be taken into account when providing treatment for depression.  

  People with learning differences often have specific stressors that contribute to their depressive symptoms. For one, they receive frequent negative feedback from employers, in social situations, and even from family. Young adults with learning differences also struggle with independence, and can be categorized as “failure to launch,” a phenomenon in which adults  struggle to be independent and do not leave their parents’ home (Hendrikson, 2019 ). Although they may be too reticent to admit it, these young adults may feel significant shame regarding their situation, which they attempt to numb through computer and video games. Ultimately, these coping strategies can lead to depression, as the underlying emotions are never fully dealt with. Adults with learning differences of all ages often struggle with questions such as “am I employable?” “Will I ever meet somebody?”  However, while their situation may seem dire, it doesn’t have to be. There are effective strategies for helping adults with learning differences to manage their depressive symptoms!    

           CBT addresses automatic thoughts and the emotions and behaviors they trigger. For individuals with learning differences, two common negative thoughts are “I am a failure” and “I am not good enough.” However, many do not realize that they do have unique strengths, some of which have been overlooked by teachers, employers, and even family. For example, not only are individuals with learning differences often creative, thoughtful, and empathetic, but many are also resilient and resourceful in managing the obstacles that they face. CBT can help these individuals to start to realize their strengths. However, it also necessary to apply these identified strengths in overcoming daily obstacles, as exemplified by an adult with ADHD using strong computer skills to create an electronic organizational and time management system. It is not enough to only label pejorative distortions; it is also important to identify and implement strengths.  

Some individuals with learning differences lack a core sense of themselves beyond their diagnosis. In other words, they may feel as though they are defined by their limitations. Breaking free from this mentality involves redefining their self-worth and identifying their core characteristics. Many forget that their morality, kindness, and patience define them just as much as their external success. Therefore, taking time to get in touch with these qualities can help many adults with learning differences to battle depression.

           Many such adults also carry with them unconscious memories from childhood, especially negative feedback from teachers and parents. One of the most profound emotional scars is the feeling that we disappointed our parents, sometimes resulting in a disruption in our attachment to them. These memories can cause greater sensitivity to setbacks in adulthood. Therefore, forgiving oneself for what one might have change d or done differently, as well as abnegating oneself from full responsibility for the disappointment of a caregiver, can be an important therapeutic step. This work can be accomplished through ongoing treatment.

Although there is no one size fits all for the treatment of depression for those with learning differences, there are a variety of different approaches for reframing one’s thinking and understanding about the impact of early life experiences. It behooves all therapists to understand the thought patterns and early experiences that can contribute to depressive symptoms in adults with learning differences. Ultimately, by identifying and applying their strengths, these adults can achieve the professional and social success that they desire.             


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