Working as a dyslexia aware counsellor I am struck by the frequency dyslexic clients present with experiencing depression. Depression can of course affect everyone at some point irrespective of an invisible difference but the regularity with which it presents as a secondary repercussion of dyslexia is pronounced.
If you suffer from depression you are far from alone. It’s estimated by the World Health Organisation that 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression, making it the leading cause of disability worldwide. In addition, one in 10 people are thought to be dyslexic. That, potentially, is a lot of depressed, dyslexic people.
If you suffer from depression you will be aware that it is far more than feeling ‘down’. It can affect how you think about things, your energy levels, concentration, sleep and even your sex life. Many of our dyslexic clients have a general difficulty with concentration, dealing with change, emotional regulation, memory and a whole raft of other presentations. Are they therefore more susceptible to the black dog of depression?
Depression impacts by affecting the emotions, ways of thinking, behaviours, physiology and social relationships. It creeps up gradually and for a dyslexic person, who finds day to day living energetically demanding anyway, these small changes may trigger a manifestation of depression and negative thoughts.
The central symptom of depression ‘anhedonia’, is derived from the ancient Greek meaning ‘without pleasure’ or the loss of the capacity to experience any pleasure. Life seems empty and joyless. Although positive feelings can be lost, negative emotions, especially anger, can increase. Common symptoms linked with depression are anxiety and fear – familiar day to day experiences for a dyslexic person.
Dyslexic people already find concentration and memory challenging and depression interferes with this challenge, often highlighting the negative. It affects the way a person thinks about themselves. If you already have a negative self image you perceive yourself as inferior, flawed, bad or worthless. Depression pushes you towards even more extreme forms of thinking. Thoughts become ‘all or nothing’ – either complete success or abject failure.
A very strong visual imagination is a feature of dyslexia with vast amounts of imagery processed on a moment by moment basis. Although a great creative strength when used resourcefully, when depression strikes, imagery can become dark, reflect being stuck and not able to get out. Art work produced by depressed dyslexic clients tends to involve dark or harsh colours with darkness and entrapment as key internal images.
When depression hits, behaviour changes. There is less engagement in positive activities and some people may withdraw socially and hide away. Things that used to be enjoyable and energising now seems arduous. Everything takes too much effort. Relationships with others become less positive, triggering conflict in personal and professional relationships. When anxious, there is a tendency to avoid meeting people which eventually develops into a loss of social confidence. With a tendency to experience difficulties with relationships anyway, a depressed dyslexic can withdraw behind a fortress of miscommunication and misunderstanding, preferring to be alone and isolated rather than risk the increased fear of being hurt or misunderstood.
Physiologically, a lot of changes take place when depressed. Anxiety can bring about a surge of adrenaline, there are physical changes in the brain as the production of the stress hormone cortisol increases, neurotransmitters are affected often with a reduction in brain chemicals. These physical changes can create a host of other unwanted symptoms such as low energy level, sleep problems, loss of or increased appetite all of which subtly impact on the already over stretched dyslexic.
Depressive behaviour impacts on other people. The former creative, charismatic person is less fun to be with, irritable and continually says ‘no’ to avoid any further stress. Through feelings of shame or fear at having a mental disorder, conflicts become irresolvable and unvoiced resentments build up.
There is no silver bullet but what we have found useful is to help a client really understand their dyslexia. It’s different for each person but, realising that your absent mindedness, poor concentration, bad memory and general sense of confusion can be secondary presentations of dyslexia, and not to do with being bad, mad or sad, brings enormous relief. When we take clients, we ask if they have experienced a whole raft of emotions, ways of thinking and behaviours. From these responses, we have concluded that dyslexic people are more prone to depression and often, they had no realisation that these predispositions may be the cause.
When you understand why your wonderfully creative brain can only energetically deal with just so much and no more before the system starts to crash; when the historic role of relationship failures and social isolations are taken into consideration, understood and accommodated; when there is an appreciation and determination to resolve unfinished emotional trauma from the past – there is the possibility of embracing the constructive opportunities that experiencing depression offers.
Building a resilient dyslexic identity and moving forward with renewed vigour and self understanding of what is realistic and achievable is no easy task but then being dyslexic and depressed isn’t either.