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How My Learning Disability Affected My Mental Health

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In the 60 years that I have been part of the learning disabled world, I have both experienced and witnessed the suffering that is living with a learning disability.

Learning disabilities are commonly considered a school-based issue; but struggling in school means struggling in life. This makes learning to be confident and acquiring a healthy mental attitude a particular challenge for those with learning disabilities. With children and youth as this year's focus for Mental Health Awareness Week, I would like to call attention to the relationship between mental health issues and learning disabilities.

I was born with severe learning disabilities. This restricted my learning, my experiences, the way I perceived the world, and in turn how I was perceived. From a very young age, I was confounded by basic tasks. While I had some exceptional strengths, I read and wrote everything backward, struggled to comprehend language, was physically uncoordinated and continually got lost. As early as primary school I worked exhaustively to maintain my grades. I also worked to hide my confusion and lack of understanding of all that was happening around me. Despite these labours, I was still called stubborn, slow and lazy.

Conditions have improved somewhat since I was in school as a learning-disabled youth, but a lack of understanding and tolerance seems to remain. People with learning disabilities are commonly criticized or even dismissed. How could someone with reasonable intelligence make errors in judgment, fall short of a task, be so irresponsible or so awkward? In fact these can be the very hallmarks of specific learning disabilities. This is the battle cry for those with a learning disability -- we are intelligent, but we struggle to achieve, at times even to trust our intelligence.

Imagine constantly straining to understand. Imagine missing important instructions, subtle comments, the tone of someone's voice or the logical consequence of an event. Imagine forgetting the main point of the conversation or task, the details provided, or the very look or place of objects. Imagine seeing everything through a fog, or as black or white. Imagine being only more aware that everyone else understood, while you were miles behind.

Now consider whether a secure self-concept could possibly grow from this experience. Indeed, those of us with learning disabilities will experience diminishing self-esteem from an early age. After years of frustration and frequent failure, any optimism towards ourselves or our future is out of the question. Instead, we just try to survive. Our mechanisms include fear, performance anxiety, obsessive tendencies, and avoidance strategies. For many, it can spiral to more chronic anxiety and depression. Addictions, self-injury, aggression, and other anti-social behaviours have been statistically linked to learning disabilities.

Various estimates put the percentage of the general population affected by learning disabilities around 10 per cent, give or take. I believe that these figures are under-reported, and that the true figure is somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent. Certainly the rates between learning disabilities and depression have been documented and are high. I also believe that many are suffering in silence.

As a society we must reconsider behaviours that are too often seen as lazy, unmotivated, defiant, or just not trying hard enough. One of my students shared that he had been told he was 'garbage' by a college professor. With these experiences repeated over time, other people's perceptions of a student often become internalized by that student. How could they not? This is one way that lack of understanding contributes to a climate of stigma and shame around learning disabilities. There is clearly a parallel between the discrimination felt by individuals with learning disabilities and those who endure the stigma of mental illness.

I grew up confused, scared, and isolated. As an adult I developed elaborate coping systems. Many were unproductive, some were dangerous. By my twenties I had tried to commit suicide more than once. What saved my life was research that taught me there was a neurological cause to my confusion: parts of my brain were underperforming, and I learned that through applying the principles of neuroplasticity, I could create exercises to change my brain. I developed a series of discrete cognitive exercises: each strengthening a different area of brain capacity, each building learning competence. From there, competence and confidence could finally begin to emerge.

For the last 35 years I have been working with children and young people to change their own unique constellations of cognitive deficiencies and overcome their learning challenges. Thousands of students have moved on from Arrowsmith cognitive programs and have become more effective learners. They have become successfully independent students, professionals, partners and parents. But many, including myself, live with the memory and scars of our previous learning disabilities.

The strong link between learning disabilities and mental health is among my reasons for advocating for cognitive intervention as early as possible. There is no doubt in my mind that if children could eliminate their cognitive struggles, they would emerge as healthier adults. I also believe they would experience more success with therapeutic approaches because their capacity to learn and reflect on their personal experiences would be that much greater. In fact, psychiatrists have referred individuals to Arrowsmith to address the underlying cognitive problems that have in these cases led to emotional problems. They have reported that as the individuals improve on their ability to reason, they can now benefit from insight therapy, which was not possible before. They can now understand cause and effect and see patterns in their lives, so necessary for the healing process.

Our discussion of learning disabilities is a mental health issue. Indeed, it is a public health issue. Youth who struggle with learning disabilities become adults with learning disabilities, who are over-represented in many marginalized populations, and more vulnerable to risk-taking behavior and mental health issues than those without. There are many indicators, too many indicators, of the pressing need for further implementation of cognitive-based training as a standard in education.

While calculating the true cost, medically and socially may be impossible, I know with certainty that this is a cost that is not only immense, but avoidable. During this Mental Health Week, I ask that learning disabilities be part of the discussion. We must create a world where children and youth will not feel they have to hide their learning disabilities. Most importantly, we need to be aware that by cognitively changing their learning potential, young people can leave their learning disabilities behind, and no longer have to endure the devastating effects on their mental health.

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