There is no doubt that a link exists between dyslexia and depression. I spent many years between 1996 and 2007 assessing young people in Further Education for dyslexia. The language they used when describing their difficulties and school experience mirrors the language used by those who are clinically depressed. Self-descriptions such as ’I thought I was thick’ or even, worse, ‘I was treated as though I was thick’ and, yes, some teachers used the word. Unbelievable though this may seem there are still some teachers who lack a clear understanding about the difficulties the dyslexic student faces.
Then there are references to how they apply themselves to their work. Reports abound with ‘must try harder’, ‘need to work harder’. The bright youngster who can answer questions orally and take part in classroom debate fails to impress teachers when he or she does not produce written work which matches their oral knowledge. They are then so easily deemed lazy. But as I have frequently told students and teachers, ‘if you find something difficult you are not to keen to repeat the experience.’ After all how many of us have tried a hobby or activity and given up because ‘it’s just not me’ or ‘it was too hard’ or even ‘I am not cut out for that.’ Well the dyslexic pupil is ‘not cut out for academic work. They find it so hard – the different brain connections of the dyslexic brain mean they have to work four times harder than their peers and tire easily. Yet, they have a thirst for learning and perseverance to match.
Students report acute embarrassment when asked to read aloud. At school, my dyslexic partner would drop pencils to the floor and disappear beneath the desk to retrieve them in the hope his turn to read would be missed. Asking a dyslexic pupil to read aloud can lead to later taunting by his peers and the subsequent bullying can send the child into deep depression with sometimes disastrous results. Parents of children who are struggling at school need to be aware of problems that may occur at school.
Dyslexic children worry more than other children. They worry constantly they will make mistakes and this causes extreme stress, another pre-cursor to depression. They find school or college stressful, declare they never understand fully what they should be doing, do not have time to write down the homework and are often in trouble as a result. Negative emotions and anxiety make the dyslexic difficulties worse. Spelling deteriorates further, reading slows down and written output dwindles to a trickle. A vicious cycle follows of stress, anxiety and inefficiency. Unfortunately the dyslexic usually tends to do things the hard way. Negative emotions include confusion, embarrassment, lack of confidence, frustration, and anger.
What the student or pupil needs are coping strategies which will ease the learning load and awareness of their strengths which can compensate for their weaknesses.To reduce stress, encourage your child or teenager to relax. Teach them yogic breathing and encourage counting on the in breath and the out breath. This counting pushes negative thoughts out of the mind. Exercise also reduces stress so encouraging teenagers to take up active outside activities will help. When I hear of a child or teenager denied play or break time because of a poor result in an essay or spelling test I can feel only sadness. The very activity which can help them learn in the following lesson is being denied them. The dyslexic needs more, not fewer breaks and more, not less, exercise.
A negative term dyslexics face is ‘failure’. Failing does not have to be negative as long as it is seen as a temporary blip on the path to success. Even non-dyslexics fail sometimes at some tasks. There is always another chance, a new school, a new subject, a new teacher, a new-found interest and even a new academic year with work which may not be so challenging in some areas.
Some well-adjusted students with dyslexia I have met as an assessor in Further and Higher Education are those whose parents arranged an assessment during their primary school years followed by either extra help at school or a specialist private tutor. These students have been aware early on in their education of their strengths and weaknesses and the true nature of their difficulties. Those who have gone undetected have no understanding of why they are struggling and live with constant nagging doubts as to their abilities. An assessment at sixteen can be an enlightening experience and change the student’s attitude to study and life in general, especially when an IQ test has shown that they are actually very bright. If a student appears depressed and is falling behind, it might be advisable to screen for dyslexia just to be sure.
When teaching a dyslexic student some aspects of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) can be employed by re-framing some of the more negative language with alternatives thus reducing damaging self-talk.
For example the student who says
‘I am always making lots of mistakes’ can be encouraged to say instead
‘I do make more mistakes than other students but I can learn to check my work.’
Rather than say
‘I’m hopeless at spelling’ say
‘I am not that good at spelling but I am better than I was and keeping a personal spelling dictionary will help me improve.
‘I can’t do exams’
‘I am learning revision and exam strategies which will help me in exams and I will learn to use my extra time for reading through my work and checking.’
Modifying language can bring about a change in self-perception and raise confidence. With sympathetic and constructive approaches by both tutors and parents, the dyslexic teenager can begin to produce work which reflects his true ability. There is no cure for dyslexia and students will need to use strategies throughout their education and working life. However, with understanding on the part of parents and teachers, the demons of depression can be kept well at bay.
Dyslexia: A Teenager’s Guide, Dr Sylvia Moody