A large Canadian study found that people with learning disabilities — particularly women — had a much higher rate of suicidal behavior than did the general population, even when controlling for risk factors like depression, substance abuse, and economic status.
Data from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey allowed researchers to identify a cross sample of more than 21,000 Canadians, approximately 750 of whom reported they had been diagnosed with learning disabilities. Even after controlling for comorbid conditions, socioeconomic factors, and demographics, the study found that 16 percent of women with learning disabilities had attempted suicide in their lifetimes — compared to just 3.3 percent of the general female population. Men with learning disabilities had an elevated risk, too — 7.7 percent vs. 2.1 percent — but results in the female cohort were more drastic, researchers said.
The causal link between learning disabilities and suicide attempts is unknown, but the study’s authors speculated that high rates of sexual and physical abuse in this population may be to blame. Adults with learning disabilities who reported being abused in their childhood had nearly double the lifetime risk for attempting suicide. This correlation also may be related to the personal and familial stress that often comes with learning disabilities, the researchers said.
“Learning disabilities such as dyslexia cast a very long shadow,” said lead author Professor Esme Fuller-Thomson, of the University of Toronto. “Adults with learning disabilities still had 46 percent higher odds of having attempted suicide than their peers without learning problems, even when we took into account a wide range of other risk factors.”
She emphasized the importance of proactive identification and treatment for this population, who may struggle with suicidal tendencies due to a lack of academic and/or social support.
“Our findings of the strong link between learning disabilities and suicide attempts provide an additional reason to prioritize the early detection and timely provision of effective educational interventions for children with dyslexia and other learning problems,” she said. “In addition to the benefits of these treatments for improving learning skills and academic success, it is possible that they may also decrease long-term suicide risk.
“It is unacceptable that many children with learning disabilities languish for years on waiting-lists for needed educational interventions,” she concluded.