How Depression Affects Learning

June 24, 2020

When people think of depression (or clinical depression), they often think of someone who struggles with feelings of sadness or who frequently feels down for longer than “normal” periods. People with depression are also sometimes seen as lazy or antisocial as they often experience fluctuations in their energy levels or tend to lose interest in those things they once found exciting. All of these things, alterations in energy, sleeping patterns, eating habits, etc., are common symptoms of depression; however, for some people, depression can also have a detrimental impact on their ability to think.

Long term depression can alter one’s ability to remain attentive and to commit thoughts, ideas, and information to memory. It can also have a negative effect on something called cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is the ability of someone to adapt their goals and strategies for achieving those goals to changing situations. Combined, the symptoms of depression are more than just a case of the blues. They can have a significant impact on your child or teen’s ability to learn while in school.

What is depression?

Depression is a common California teen mental health disorder that causes people to experience periods of depressed mood, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities, sleep disturbances, alterations in appetite or eating patterns, reduced energy, and poor concentration. As previously noted, depression is much more than just “feeling down” or “having the blues.” Everyone feels unhappiness at some point or another. For most people, instances of sadness can be related to or traced to a specific event such as the loss of a loved one. For a person experiencing this type of unhappiness, the feelings often go away after a short time.

For a person experiencing depression, there will be intense and chronic feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, negativity, and helplessness. Unlike a traditional case of “the blues,” these feelings will linger as opposed to going away. Depression can happen to anyone, at any age. Half of all people who experience depression will only experience symptoms once; however, the other half will struggle with chronic depression. Depending on the intensity and severity, it can take from several months to many years to recover from clinical depression.

Causes and Symptoms of Depression

Depression has a variety of potential causes. Also, there is a wide variety of symptoms commonly associated with the illness. Depression can happen suddenly or as a result of years of experiences and life-altering events. Examples may include physical illness, childhood experiences, bereavement, unemployment, difficulties in the family unit, or many other life-changing events. Several chronic illnesses have also been linked to the onset of depression. These include heart disease, cancer, chronic pain, head injuries, and pituitary damage. Finally, in some cases, there may not be a clear-cut cause for depression as it could be a variety of events or conditions in combination.

Several symptoms are commonly linked to depression. To be diagnosed with depression, a person does not need to experience the entire list; however, some are seen with the majority of depression cases.

  • Lack of energy and lethargy
  • Lingering sadness
  • Reduced self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Avoiding others including friends and classmates
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Inability to function at school
  • Appetite changes
  • Physical aches and pains
  • Suicidal ideations or attempts
  • Self-harm

While this list is by no means exhaustive, the above are common symptoms to look for if your teen is struggling in school, and you believe depression may be the cause.

Types of Depression

There are several types of depression, a few of which are listed and briefly described below.

  • Major depression: This type of depression is also commonly referred to as major depressive disorder. If your child or teen is depressed most of the time for most of the days of the week, your child or teen may be diagnosed with major depression or major depressive disorder of they experience five or more of the common symptoms on most days for a period of two weeks or more.
  • Persistent depressive disorder: If your child or teen experiences depression that lasts for two years or longer, it will likely be diagnosed as a persistent depressive disorder. This term is used to describe two conditions previously known as dysthymia (low-grade persistent depression) and chronic major depression.
  • Bipolar disorder: Bipolar disorder is also sometimes referred to as manic depression. A person with bipolar disorder has moods that range from extremes of high energy and an “up” mood to low and extremely depressive states. Symptoms of major depression are seen during the “low” phases.
  • Post-natal depression: Women experience this type of depression during the weeks and months after childbirth.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Seasonal affective disorder is a period of major depression that most often occurs during the winter months when the days are shorter, and exposure to sunlight is minimal. Symptoms associated with seasonal affective disorder often go away during the spring and summer months.

Some other types of depression you may learn about when communicating with your provider about your teen’s symptoms may include psychotic depression, premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), situational depression, and atypical depression. Regardless of specific type or diagnosis, all forms of depression can impact your child or teen’s ability to focus and concentrate, which can lead to difficulties in their academic work.

Depression and Learning Disabilities

A large amount of research suggests that people with diagnosed learning disabilities are more likely than the general population to experience a mental health issue such as depression. This can make learning even more difficult as your teen needs to address the challenges posed by the learning disability and the co-occurring symptoms associated with depression, which increase cognitive problems. Statistics show that approximately six percent of the population (without a learning disability) will experience depression in a given year. This number is relatively low when compared to the roughly twenty percent of those with a learning disability who are likely to experience depression in that same period.

Depression, the memory and learning

Depression can affect memory and cognitive abilities in several different ways. Children and teens (adults as well) often have difficulty remembering the fine details of events they have experienced or the things they have been taught. Also, the ability to carry out future plans or remember simple tasks such as turning in an assignment or returning a library book can suffer while someone is experiencing depression. This inability to complete simple tasks can create challenges with learning and memory retention for school-aged children.

Also, people with depression tend to have an easier time recalling adverse events over positive ones. People who do not have depression usually have a better memory for happy or positive events. In general, their minds actively try to suppress neutral or negative events. On the other hand, people with depression have a decrease in the bias towards remembering the positive.

The area of the brain that deals with learning and memory the hippocampus. This part of the brain is sensitive to stress and tends to be smaller in people who have been diagnosed with depression. The smaller size of the hippocampus may help to explain difficulties with recollection and memory in people who have depression.

Treating Depression

The first step in depression treatment for your child or teen is to visit your primary care provider. During this visit, the doctor will ask several questions about their symptoms and how those symptoms affect them both mentally and physically. Their provider may suggest your teen work with a mental health specialist or seek residential treatment at a specialized facility like Hillcrest. Their suggestions will vary depending on the intensity of your child’s symptoms. For many young people, medications are not generally recommended because the risks and side effects associated with the medication could outweigh the benefits.

Laptop - Depression - Hillcrest

Talk therapies

Talk therapies are the most common form of psychotherapy used in the treatment of depression for people of all ages. There are several different kinds of talk therapy. Many can be done in both an outpatient and inpatient setting. If your teen has been struggling with chronic, long-term depressive symptoms, an inpatient setting with specialized and individualized care such as that here at Hillcrest may be a better option than traditional outpatient settings.

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)-CBT focuses on how one’s own thoughts and behaviors contribute to their depression. Your teen’s therapist will help them to learn new ways to react to events and triggers. They will also learn to challenge preconceptions that lead to depressive symptoms.
  • Interpersonal therapy- this form of therapy focuses on how your child or teen’s relationships play a role in their depression. They will learn how to spot unhealthy behaviors and change them before they lead to depressive triggers.
  • Psychodynamic therapy- This is a more traditional form of therapy. Your child and their therapist will explore behavior patterns and motivations they may not be aware of that could be leading to their depression. They may also look into traumatic events that could have occurred when your child was younger, which could also be underlying triggers.

Family counseling is also a standard treatment model used when treating depression in teens. Family therapy is designed to help family members learn about depression and what the early warning signs and triggers look like. Understanding these events may help family members to guide their child or teen through depressive events.

At Hillcrest, we understand the symptoms of depression do not affect your child or teen alone. When a family member experiences depression, the entire family struggles. We also understand how depression can impact vital aspects of your child’s life, including their ability to learn and succeed in school. Depression is so much more than just “the blues,” and when your child is struggling with depressive symptoms each day, it can make simple day to day tasks like studying and focusing nearly impossible.

If you believe your child or teen is struggling with depression, reach out to us at Hillcrest. Our individual treatment plans are designed to meet the needs of your child on all levels. Here at Hillcrest, they will work with a highly trained treatment team, including medical providers, psychotherapists, nutritionists, and pharmacology professionals (if needed) to help them recover from depression. Through therapy, they will learn how to recognize triggers or behaviors that lead to depressive symptoms and how to manage those situations in a healthy way. Depression can be debilitating and pervasive, impacting your child’s life at all levels. If your medical provider has suggested therapy; or you believe therapy could be helpful for your child or teen, contact Hillcrest Adolescent Treatment Center today.