Neil Alexander-Passe (2015) Dyslexia and mental health. London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers
This book was launched at the BDA International Conference in March 2016, and is a really welcome addition to literature on understanding cognitive and behavioural aspects of dyslexia, from someone who is dyslexic himself and has extensive experience in a learning support role. It is pioneering in bringing these two topics together so thoroughly.
From my professional observations, the main links between dyslexia and mental health are three-fold:
• People who experience mental ill health as a consequence of the frustrating aspects of dyslexia, sometimes following a late diagnosis of dyslexia in adulthood;
• People who have a pre-existing diagnosis of mental ill health, apparently separate from dyslexia, but possibly exacerbated by finding out about dyslexia;
• Dyslexia and mental ill health as co-occurring cognitive experiences (the unfortunately named ‘co-morbidity’ factor), which may or may not have a similar aetiology.
Alexander-Passe definitely covers the first of these aspects and tangentially the second; the third possibility is largely unexplored at present. Researchers are finally exploring dyslexia in its wider manifestation (not just a reading difficulty), but mental health is so complex, it is hard to imagine a study that could establish a causal link between this and dyslexia.
Dyslexia and mental health begins by seeking to define dyslexia; a thankless task, such is the range of views from research. It is necessary, however, in order to brief the reader who comes from a background of knowledge about mental illness, wanting to find out about dyslexia. Alexander-Passe redeems a rather negative coverage of dyslexic difficulties in the body of chapters 1 and 2 in his key messages at the end of each, highlighting his own more positive views of dyslexia as a difference not a disability. He takes this further in chapter 4 when discussing the need for the “transformation” of negative perceptions (p.95), through working on difficulties and celebrating strengths.
The book comes alive from chapter 3 onwards, when introducing case study evidence from the author’s research and direct quotes from participants. Alexander-Passe is purposively an active and participative researcher, using self-disclosure “to put participants at ease and to gain enough trust to investigate emotionally sensitive subjects.” (p.226). This a brave stance to take, given warnings from traditional researchers against ‘going native,’ but it certainly adds to the impact. Just occasionally a hint of leading questions creeps in (did you experience what I did…?), but there is still richness in the shared experience. When questioning participants about self-harm and suicidal thoughts, it was not always clear that they thought of dyslexia as the main trigger, but certainly the pressure of feeling different in their way of learning contributed to negative thoughts. Bullying also comes through as a factor.
As a practitioner, I am grateful for the insights into the nature of anxiety, stress and self-harm (the last, an aspect of an emotional defence strategy). I also particularly like the coverage of models for coping (chapter 8) and the impetus to move from “learned helplessness to optimism” (chapter 13), applying theories from Seligman (pp.210-213). This involves moving through phases of reprogramming: adversity, belief, consequences, disputation, energisation (ABCDE). It would be good to have more on how this works in practice, in future publications from Alexander-Passe.
This is a really well presented book, with lots of stimulus for active reading and reflection. It is well paced, with subheadings, summary conclusions and key messages. It has an amazingly comprehensive reference list, which acts as a great starting point for future research. It is always good to have books based on academic research which are also eminently readable. We need more books like this!
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