Homedevelopmental disabilityWhy are learning disabilities still seen as mental illness?
A black and white photo of a large, stately building when it was a lunatic asylum.
Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, Marion, Virginia (now Southwestern State Hospital)

There’s an ongoing misconception that learning/developmental disabilities/differences are actually forms of mental illness. Although mental illnesses, like depression and anxiety disorders, are common in the LD/DD community, they’re not the same thing.

So, why is that misconception still so common?

Back when the study of psychology was still in its infancy, everything related to behavior that didn’t have an obvious physical cause was treated as a mental illness. While the hospitalization of outspoken women or “emotional” is commonly known, people with various forms of learning and developmental disabilities were also often committed.

People on the autism spectrum were especially susceptible, because of they managed their sensory systems by stimming and many had difficulty with verbal communication. While most people with learning disabilities were seen as slow or stupid, those who acted out their frustration were also seen as mentally ill.

Although institutionalizing mentally ill people usually only happens now in times of crisis or severe cases, the misconception of LD being a type of illness persists today.

Connection and Bias
As I’d stated before, there is a connection between mental illness and learning/developmental disabilities/differences. People respond to stress in different ways, and the pressure put on those of us who think and process information uniquely is often unrelenting and invisible to other people. Naturally, many react with anxiety levels and eventual depression.

However, some of the symptoms, like some associated with ADHD, are confused with mood disorders, like bipolar. Often, that misinterpretation is further supported by cultural biases and stereotypes.

Boys, for instance, are more often identified with learning disorders, where girls are more often identified with mood disorders. This is, in large part, because boys are still more associated with academics by our culture, while girls are still seen as more emotional beings.

Similarly, white students are still more likely to be identified as having some sort of learning disorder, where black students are more likely to be diagnosed with a behavioral disorder. While it may not be a conscious decision, this does reflect the subconscious racism we’re all influenced by today.

Black rimmed glasses seen from behind sitting on sheets of printed paper.

Lack of Awareness
As is often the case in all areas of neurodiversity, this all boils down to a fundamental lack of awareness. I write this in relation to issues surrounding learning/developmental differences/disabilities and mental health, but also the intersections of gender, race and class.

As tempting as it is to try pinpointing all of the problems within one area on that area alone, the fact remains that many factors come into play. We all develop unconscious biases towards various groups as we grow up, depending on the families and environments we’re born into. If we’re to remedy the issues plaguing our culture today, we need to do a better job of acknowledging and addressing those preconceptions.

That’s why it’s important to read and listen to all types of stories, told from all types of viewpoints. Odds are, we’ll find underlying patterns to many of them, if we take the time to find them.

As we do that, let’s not forget the often ignored voices of the neurodiverse and disabled people out there. Those of us who actually live the experience have valuable insight to offer the rest of the world.


Why are learning disabilities still seen as mental illness? — 2 Comments

  1. There are many people who still think of autism as a mental illness too. While I definitely try to fight against the stigma associated with mental illness, the danger of treating autism, ADHD, learning disorders, etc, as mental illnesses is that people with these conditions won't benefit much from things like therapy and medication… they have to be TAUGHT differently.

  2. I include autism in the developmental difference/disability category. There are so many neurodiversities that fall into LD or DD that I can't list them all.

    I agree completely with you, though. Thanks so much for advocating!

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