THE POWER OF EMPATHY: HOW CAN WE REDUCE STIGMA AND IMPROVE MENTAL HEALTH BY SEPARATING THE TERM “LEARNING DISABILITY” FROM ACADEMIC ACCOMPLISHMENT?

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Welcome to my GOA Catalyst Project! Join me and learn the importance of empathy in order to create a more welcoming environment for students with learning disabilities! 

Let’s debunk some myths first! Test your knowledge on learning disabilities to build or reinforce your foundation of understanding …

Please click here to have access to the quick google forms “Test Your Knowledge” quiz!  

What is a learning disability?

Learning disabilities can affect, but are not limited to, a combination of the following: an individual’s ability to understand language, use language verbally, use written language, do mathematical calculations, or direct attention. However, they influence diagnosed individuals beyond the classroom setting. They often have an impact on memory, daily communication, managing money, and other leisure activities.

What is stigma consciousness?

In simple terms, “stigma consciousness” is a form of stereotype threat. In other words, it is the phenomenon that occurs when societal stigma begins to have an effect on the stigmatized group’s psychological well-being. A significant amount of research suggests self-stigma begins only when a person becomes aware that they are societally labeled different in some way. 

Becoming conscious of “not fitting in”, or rather being ostracized, often results in a reduction of an individual’s self-worth and an increase in psychological distress. 

This leads to the development of depression and/or anxiety

Susceptibility to Mental Illness

Multiple studies not only suggest that stigma can cause mental illness, but also that individuals with learning disabilities are usually more susceptible to developing a mental disorder. A significant amount of people with learning disabilities have considerable mental health problems, yet these needs are often misattributed to their disability, preventing them from accessing the proper support.

There are four categorized groups of speculated causes for mental health conditions: biological, psychological (developmental), and social.  Here are a few examples … 

  • Neurological conditions correlated with a learning disorder may hold an impact on mental health problems (likely in predominantly psychological conditions)
  • Individuals who might have developed a learning disability significantly through environmental factors often experience an inability to process and regulate environmental stress. Causing mental health issues later in life. 
  • Exposure to social disadvantages has been correlated with both ADHD and emotional disorder.

Examples of Stigma

Although individual responses are diverse, stigmatization affects individuals with learning disabilities both emotionally and academically.

 A national public poll suggested that 50% of the United States general public perceived learning disabilities to be an interchangeable term with laziness, carelessness, or stupidity. Further, studies suggest teachers have a tendency to view students with learning disabilities more negatively than the “average” student.  

There’s a great lack of knowledge and misunderstanding surrounding the term “learning disability” leading to many misconceptions . . . 

  • wrongly connected to intelligence.
  • any type of accommodation is an unfair advantage.

The Effects of Negative Stigmatization

The fear of being judged due to a label whether consciously or not can inhibit anyone’s performance. Exposure to a hostile learning environment, with academic stereotyping, can drastically affect a student’s ability to learn. 

Often, these students are hesitant to talk about their own issues or challenges because they feel as though their peers will mock them for their learning disability or for choosing to use accommodations. By understanding the relationship between learning disabilities and mental illness, hopefully, we will be able to better empathize with those who are struggling with learning disabilities rather than simply dismiss their challenges as common and usual. 

  • This change in attitude could potentially reduce the anxiety caused by the academic-induced stigma surrounding learning disabilities, and create an open/safe space for discussing academic challenges. Not only would this be beneficial for those who have already been diagnosed, but help students who are too afraid to speak up, and allow them to finally get help if they wish to receive it.  

So… What NOW?

As a peer, parent, or community member, how can you support students with learning disabilities? 

On an individual basis, it’s pretty simple. Become educated and educate others to not fall into simply believing myths and stereotypes. Understand what it is and what it is not. Removing societal stigmatization eliminates the possibility of self stigmatization which is what truly becomes damaging.

Speak out, but also ask if there is anything you can do to help the specific individual. Everyone’s experiences are different. Some might be looking for support, while others might respectfully not need external help for their own well-being. Either way, let them know that you validate their experience and you commend their achievements (academic or recreational).  

As a teacher how can you support students with learning disabilities?

Having a supportive relationship between teacher and student can significantly impact those who feel undervalued by stigmatization. A culture where teachers can ask their students how to best keep their needs in mind builds a form of validation within the student’s academic experience. Also, becoming aware of the potential biases you hold could possibly make the academic experience of students with learning disabilities more equitable. 

As an academic institution, how can you support students with learning disabilities? 

Other than ensuring bullying or inappropriate mocking is not ignored, potentially including a class period in health specifically discussing learning disabilities could be a good start in increasing overall awareness of how stigma affects students with learning disabilities.

Additional Resources:

Further expand your knowledge….

Helping Children with Learning Disabilities 

Please click the link to have access to the Works Cited

 

I would love to hear any constructive feedback bellow. Please feel free to leave any questions or comments.

4 Comments

4 comments

  1. Hi Melina! I completely agree with your project. I think this is something that needs to change. Your project really caught my attention because I am someone with a “learning disability” and I loved that you are advocating for a change.

  2. Hey Melina! Your project is extremely important and well done all around. I particularly enjoyed that you separated a section for individuals, teachers and institutions. This gave us readers a perfect gateway into knowing what we should do to combat this stigma depending on what societal position we reside. When you stated that, ‘Multiple studies not only suggest that stigma can cause mental illness, but also that individuals with learning disabilities are usually more susceptible to developing a mental disorder’, it really put it into perspective just how important it is to talk about this issue and actively try to combat the harmful stereotypes placed on to kids with learning disabilities. Great job!

  3. Hey Melina! I really enjoyed going through your project. I can relate to you, because I also struggle with a learning disability. I am glad that I took the short quiz in the beginning and after the end of the project, I understood the correct answers and why they made sense. I am interested in this topic and excited to share what I learned! Great work!

  4. Hey Melina, I really liked this project and thought you did a really good job and I struggle in school and think this is something I can take away from. you did a wonderful job and great work with all the info.

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