Is a Learning Disability Considered a Mental Illness?

Larry B. Silver

Larry B. Silver, MD


If someone has a learning disability can it be considered a mental illness? We have a wonderful club in our city for those who suffer from mental illness. I have a friend who has a learning disability. I am curious if he can use their services.


No, a Learning Disability is not a mental illness. Learning Disabilities are neurologically-based. They result from “faulty wiring” in specific areas of the brain. These disabilities will impact on an individual’s ability to process and to use information and, thus, can impact on this individual’s ability to be successful with reading, writing, math, and other learning tasks.

For more information on learning disabilities:

New to LD
Related Disorders of a Learning Disability

Larry B. Silver, M.D.
Dr. Silver, a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, recently retired from private practice. He is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Georgetown Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He has more than 150 research, public policy, and clinical publications, including his popular book for parents, The Misunderstood Child, now in its fourth edition. Silver has been active in LDA since 1969 and served as LDA President from 2000-2002. He currently co-chairs the LDA Professional Advisory Board.


  1. Dr. Silver, thank you for your insite on this matter. I just read your answer to the question… Is a learning disability considered a mental illness, for a long time I struggled with this question and I was relieved to read your answer. I am a 55 year old black man, I have lived through a learning disability from my childhood years, through my adolescence years, and even now I struggle with it. I feel Limited. The difference is I am actually taking necessary steps and advocating for myself, It’s not easy, I think I’m dysiexic, I’ve never been diagnosed. I was put in special education from 6th through the 10th grades. Elementary grades 1-5 as far as I can remember it was OK, I just recieved school transcripts from elementary, middle and high school, I plan to take to somebody to look at.

    • Tim Kelley says:

      Mental Illness is known to occur in young adults between the ages of 18 to 30 years old, These can be well educated people. One of the cognitive skills that becomes affected is the ability to read fluently. They lose the ability to read “fluently” and therefore cannot read more than a couple words or sentences before giving up. And yes, it becomes a disability for the mentally ill although at one time they were able to ready fluently, earn a college degree and read books for pleasure.

      What’s needed is how to help these people regain the ready skill they have lost. If you know how please let me know. Thanks.

    • Bruce,
      I hope you have received the help you deserve in uncovering your learning setback. So sad to you were never given a correct diagnosis and that you suffered because of it. Hope you are doing well.

  2. My son has Asperger Syndrome. In our support group, there is some disagreement about whether or not AS is a mental health issue, a developmental delay, a difference in learning (wiring), or all three. It may not even matter in the grand scheme of things, but the media would have our kids believe they all share a common violence tendency; I try to protect mine from those stories, but he’s 17, and I can’t hover forever. What are your thoughts on this?

  3. Edith Peter says:

    Thank you for guiding us along Larry. Appreciate your breadth of understanding of what constitutes mental illness . Hope you are happy today.

  4. Beth Luppe says:

    Could you please respond to the constant comments I get from professionals regarding my child with NVLD? “Co-occurring conditions” … they all say, can be in the mix and must be factored in. In fact, we are heading into the light… after so much darkness, which I now feel is a direct result of the difficulty of adolescence.A learning disability makes the child feel so far away from peers.. I never bought it, and now, I can prove it. But is has been everyone’s first response to extremely difficult behaviors. Thanks for your affirmation.

  5. Karen Drew says:

    Hi.I have struggled my whole life. I was a C student who tried very hard.The issue started when I would get a job. I have been fired more times than I want to think about “just not picking it up” is what I heard. The issue is I struggle to learn 4 hard as the average person.10 years ago thankfully I finally lasted a long time at a job. When I started in training the trainer knew I could hardly keep up.she said I don’t know if you will make it.It isn’t just the time, it is humiliation. I took 4 years to feel confident at this job.vs 1 year for most people. Now we have a threat of job losses.Please help me to help myself to get this diagnosed..

  6. Spencer Nordone says:

    I too have struggled my whole life. I am SLD/ADHD. I too have been fired a lot, because I struggle to grasp understanding. I’m not stupid or dumb. I have no mental Illness, but mentally I’m losing. I try time and time again and fail. I have never had a job longer then a year. People laugh at me. People are impatient with me. No one understands. People tell me I’m stupid. I have had an employers in the past that has been patient with me, but the company would kill the position. My family can care less. They feel its an excuse or coop out. Friends come and go from childhood to adult. Because of my behavior considering being ADHD people perceive talking to me to be annoying. All my life people have always said once I speak people walk away. I am becoming poor in Heart and poor in income. I struggle to support my home, and may never be able to make enough to every pay my student loans.
    Question: Are there any financial support from either National or State governments not to live off of but to help contribute? It wasn’t I or my family that decided to categorize myself as SLD/ADHD. The people in the school system pushed this onto me and my family.
    I apologize from my writing I didn’t learn to write until I got into pre-college. Well read, write, or math.
    Please help me!!!!!!!! I feel like a slave in the Roman Empire. I no value.
    Just for note: My father had the same problem as myself, and he was able to go to Middlesex all boys school in Boston, and on to Cornell University, then on a masters at Columbia. I feel the excuses from my Schools that I attended lead me down a road of sorrow and fear. My future and life was sacrificed for my schools immediate needs.

  7. I have a friend who just turned 81 yrs old. He can not read or write. He can sign his name and can identify letters but is unable to put them together to make out words. I have tried to help him but he gets very frustrated and refuses to try after only a few attempts. He has had several people over the years try to help him but without success. They even sent him to special schools when he was in the army but it didn’t help. He was a truck driver for many years and amazingly was able to keep log books. He does a lot of things by memorizing them. He is elderly now and on a fixed income. Is there anything I can do to try and get him some help?

  8. Learning disability is definitely not a mental illness. It can be treated and you can lead a normal life afterwards. Children often face learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, that can result in damaging behaviors, including depression, anxiety, and the inability to express themselves. In Portland, the number of therapy specialists focusing on children and families is steadily increasing in order to help with these common problems. Providing professional care for your child at an early stage can help him find ways to overcome a learning disability faster, and help him create an environment for success in their schools. Finding the right therapist can make all the difference on your road to recovery. When you’re researching potential specialists, make sure they are trained and accredited by a recognized organization. You can use to research specialists in US, UK, Canada and Australia.

  9. I am a parent of 3 with dyslexia. I was involved with the early interventions and got 2 through college. One, however had such difficulty in college, it ended and that failure has been a hinderence in moving ahead. Today, this young adult wants to join the Army, but has been asked for psychological testing which he has only a mild concern to the GAF and high IQ scores so it has made him feel bad that he hasn’t been excepted to date. I was shocked to find out the military doesn’t have to abide by a 504 and seems to treat these students as if they are mentally ill. Its a civil rights issue that needs a BIG voice in the USA. I wish I knew this back years ago. I never would have done the tests that labeled him just to get required school help. I would have home schooled and kept it all private. Be careful parents! Don’t hinder your kids future. I am so sad that the military hasn’t give him a chance; even with a superior IQ. It hurts their developing identity as a young adult. I used to think parents who didn’t test where just in denial, but maybe they knew better. We all have strengths and weaknesses. What are professionals doing to secure the future education of theses individual? nothing beyond high school, that’s been my experience!

  10. If learning disability is not a psychological disorder, why is it diagnosed by a psychiatrist or psychologist? And while research on the topic, learning disability is academically associated with psychology. Would you please explain the reasoning and field categorization in this regard? Thank you.

  11. Christopher Wallace says:

    Hi, I am a mental health student nurse in my final year. I am about to start a placement dealing with people that have learning disabilities. On this placement I have to do a guided study essay relating research on a mental health topic. Could you give guidance to relevant research with the given service user population.

  12. RJ Brown says:

    I’m now in my early forties, and for the last ten years or so of my life, everyone around me – employers and such like – have been trying to diagnose me with something. So far they haven’t succeeded, but they’ve tried to put every possible label on me and it’s taken years for me to rebuild my self-esteem. I’m well educated to Masters degree level but struggle with undertaking certain fairly mundane tasks such as sorting information. I can do it, but slowly, because my brain takes more time to process it than other people do. I also have problems with my short term memory which I’ve been having to manage since childhood. I’m a critical thinker, quite a natural leader and in many ways almost a “high flyer”, but the way people perceive me and their bias has got in the way of me making any progress. I’m currently working in a bottom level customer service role where, ironically, I have to regularly use those skills I find hardest to use, but because of my employers’ biases I haven’t been promoted. Assumptions are made about what I’m capable of but they are generally wrong and I consequently feel frustrated a lot of the time. I’m often in a position where I grasp things before others do, but I seldom have the opportunity of communicating this because people generally don’t listen to me. I’m doubtful that a diagnosis would help me, as I can see that it could quite easily be the wrong one, but I’m pretty sure something in my brain is not functioning correctly.

    • LDA of America says:

      That must be frustrating for you! But if you believe your brain is functioning differently than most others, an evaluation may help you find some answers to your questions about what’s different and why. Psychologists and psychiatrists use valid evaluation tools that should be able to help you pinpoint your areas of strengths and challenges, but those evaluations are not cheap. However, your health insurance may be able to cover those costs. It might be worth checking out if you feel certain that your ability to work and achieve promotions would be more successful with access to job accommodations. If you do decide to have an evaluation completed, you may want to subsequently contact the Job Accommodation Network at They are a free online and/or phone service that provides free job accommodation consultations with disability experts to help you determine what kinds of accommodations might help you the most depending on your specific disability and individual strengths/challenges. There is more information about the evaluation process at

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