Are Learning and Attention Issues Risk Factors for Depression?

By Child Mind Institute, Understood Founding Partner

Are learning and attention issues risk factors for depression?

School is a big part of life for kids. It’s where they spend most of their time outside the home. They have to go every weekday, whether they feel like it or not. School is kind of like their job, but with a twist. At school everyone’s doing the same thing. And everyone’s getting graded.

So when kids have trouble in school, as kids with learning and attention issues often do, it can be hard on them. They might feel like they need to work harder to get the same grades as the other kids. They can be discouraged when their peers seem to be coasting by. Their self-esteem can take a big hit if they feel like they’re struggling. This is particularly true during the period before they get their diagnosis, when they don’t know why school is harder for them.

These things can certainly make kids feel depressed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they can be diagnosed with clinical depression. In fact, kids with ADHD are more likely to be diagnosed with behavioral problems or anxiety. But while it isn’t very common, kids with ADHD are at a greater risk for developing depression than their peers without ADHD. Some studies have suggested that teens with learning issues are more likely to get depressed, too.

What causes depression?

In general, depression isn’t caused by difficult experiences. But it can be triggered by them. Kids might have a predisposition for depression. A predisposition means they’re more likely than other kids to develop it. There are a number of factors that can create a predisposition, including:

  • A family history of depression
  • A child’s temperament or personality
  • A history of stressful life events
  • Low self-esteem

How can you tell if it’s really depression?

It’s fairly easy to confuse depression with the symptoms of a learning disability or ADHD because there is some overlap. In both cases, kids may suffer from:

  • Very negative self-esteem
  • Loss of motivation
  • Problems keeping up academically
  • Resistance to going to school

But true clinical depression is more pronounced. It isn’t just being down on yourself. Everyone experiences that at one point or another—especially teenagers. Kids with depression will persist in their dark mood for weeks or months, even if the events in their life change for the better.

You should be concerned that your child is depressed if the following symptoms of are severe, if they disrupt her life at school and at home, and if they go on for weeks without any sign of improvement.

  • Chronic feelings of sadness or worthlessness
  • Reduced interest in activities she once enjoyed
  • Reduced feelings of looking forward to things
  • Involuntary changes in weight
  • Shifts in sleep patterns
  • Sluggishness
  • Harsh self-assessment (“I’m ugly. I’m no good. I’ll never make friends.”)
  • Thoughts of or attempts at suicide

If your child shows signs of real depression, don’t wait. Have her evaluated and treated right away. Depression won’t necessarily go away on its own even if the learning or attention issues are being treated.

What are the treatments for depression?

Mild depression is sometimes treatable with psychotherapy alone. But experts agree that depression is best treated with a combination of therapy and medication. Childhood and adolescent depression is often treated with the following therapies:

  • Interpersonal Therapy (IPT): A form of psychotherapy that focuses on a child’s relationships with peers and family, and how they can positively (and negatively) affect her mood and behavior.
  • Behavioral Activation: A kind of behavioral therapy that encourages kids to participate in activities they’ve lost interest in, with the goal of jump-starting positive thoughts and getting your child reenergized.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): A form of therapy where kids are taught to challenge negative, distressing thoughts, and to recognize the pattern and train themselves to think outside it. In many cases, particularly with teenagers, this treatment is very successful.

Medications used to treat depression are designed to increase the supply of certain chemicals in the brain, called neurotransmitters, whose absence is linked to depression. These drugs include a group of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

The FDA has decided that all antidepressants run the potential risk of encouraging suicidal thoughts, and they all carry warning labels. But the phenomenon is rare and has been tied only to suicidal thoughts, not actual suicide attempts. The risks associated with not treating severe depression are much greater. Antidepressants are very safe if properly managed.

As always, your job as a parent is to know what is normal for your child and to be able to recognize and intervene when you see a significant change in her behavior. Learn the symptoms of depression. It’s perfectly normal to feel down for a bit if school is a struggle. But feeling severely down for weeks or months is a sign that your child needs qualified professional help.

Be the person who is there for her. Provide that help and get her through what can be a difficult and isolating time. And always let her know that you love her.

About the Author

Child Mind Institute Logo

Child Mind Institute, Understood Founding Partner is dedicated to transforming mental health care for children everywhere.

Did you find this helpful?

Have your own question?

Get and give answers in the Understood Community. It’s a safe place to connect with parents and experts. Get started in our groups.

What’s New on Understood