October is Mental Health Awareness Month, and dyslexia advocates say there needs to be greater awareness of the mental illness risks posed to Australians living with the common learning disability. Rachel chats to Shae Wissell, CEO of the Dear Dyslexic Foundation, about her own experiences and how it drives her research.
One in ten Australians are estimated to live with dyslexia, which primarily affects reading and spelling, and international research suggests that those living with dyslexia are 46% more likely to have attempted suicide compared with the general population.
While an alarming figure, research on the mental health of Australians living with dyslexia is almost non-existent. CEO of the Dear Dyslexic Foundation, Shae Wissell, aimed to tackle the research gap by conducting her doctorate study on the emotional wellbeing of adults with dyslexia and how they manage their dyslexia in the workplace.
Earlier this year, she shared the preliminary findings from a survey conducted with people living with dyslexia. The findings pointed towards significantly lower than average mental health compared with the general population.
Source: Dear Dyslexic Foundation
“There may be a number of reasons for the results,” says Shae. The challenges of disclosing that they have dyslexia worries people. There is always ongoing anxiety to do tasks that seem straightforward,” she adds.
These anxieties disproportionately affect the mental health of young people with dyslexia, who are also often the target of bullying during school and later in the workplace.
“A lot of young people feel dumb or stupid. Dyslexia can affect different aspects of your life besides reading, from being able to tell from left and right, or reading a map,” says Shae.
Her research has already sparked international interest. Once the full results undergo peer review—a process by which scientists in the learning disability and mental health field evaluate the research to ensure the results aren’t biased or flawed—it will be an Australian-first study that can put numbers to the emotional wellbeing of people with dyslexia.
For Shae, the research stems from personal experience. Throughout her school and university years, she struggled to put thoughts on paper and often mixed up her words and tenses in writing. Her university years studying speech pathology was littered with failed subjects.
It wasn’t until she started studying for her Master’s degree in Public Health and Administration that a tutor suggested she get assessed for dyslexia. When she was finally diagnosed at age 27 with dyslexia and dysgraphia (difficulty with writing), she fell into a “big depression”.
“That lasted for a few years because of the anxiety I always had and the frustration that I hadn’t been identified by three levels of education,” says Shae.“I felt let down by the system and I didn’t know what to do.”
Shae credits her family and psychologist for getting her through her most difficult days. However, she faced stigma when disclosing her dyslexia at work in order to get support.
“I’ve had challenges where I’ve been performance managed because of my writing skills. I’ve even been accused of having other people write for them,” she says.
She established the charity Dear Dyslexic Foundation in 2015, which is dedicated to supporting and educating young adults with dyslexia.
“I wanted to share the lived experiences of young people with dyslexia. We didn’t want to be hiding anymore. We want to educate others about how to support us to our potential,” says Shae proudly.