Can kids with anxiety and depression receive special education services?

Yes, they can!

Schools often overlook children with mental health needs like anxiety and depression, particularly when those mental health needs that manifest themselves internally. Depression and anxiety are often invisible. Children experiencing depression and anxiety may not verbally express what they are feeling. Sometimes, children with depression and anxiety avoid school, withdraw from social situations, or turn to illegal drugs to cope.

No diagnosis makes any child automatically eligible for special education. Likewise, there are no specific diagnoses that are excluded from protection under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It all depends on the facts.

Too many times, parents call me looking for help for the child who has anxiety and depression. The story tends to follow a similar pattern. The child has been experiencing depression and/or anxiety for years. The child’s attendance has grown progressively worse over the years. Usually, the child has reached high school and is getting failing grades and losing credits due to poor attendance. They’ve been told repeatedly by the school that the child doesn’t need special education. They’ve been told that the child does fine (or well enough to pass) when he or she comes to school and that the parents just need to get the child to school.

Sound familiar? Well, you are not alone and you are not without recourse. Your child may be eligible for special education services.

When it comes to determining eligibility for special education, planning and placement teams (PPT) decide whether a child is eligible for special education. Eligibility is not based on diagnoses. Instead, it is based on evaluations of the child and on categories of eligibility. While there are many different eligibility categories, it is common for children with depression and anxiety to be found eligible under the category of “emotional disturbance.” The label “emotional disturbance” is one that comes from federal law. Here is how it is defined:

Emotional disturbance means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:

  1. An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
  2. An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
  3. Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
  4. A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
  5. A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

When you look at the definition, it is obvious how a child with depression and anxiety might be found eligible. In Connecticut, there is even a form that the PPT is supposed to use. If the school doesn’t give you a copy at the PPT meeting, ask for it. Better yet, look at it in advance of the PPT. You can find the form here. In Connecticut, the State Department of Education has published Guidelines for Identifying and Educating Students with Emotional Disturbance. It is absolutely worth taking the time to read the guidelines before your first PPT meeting.

There are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The cause of the depression or anxiety is not relevant to eligibility. So, if your child experienced a traumatic event and developed anxiety or depression after that, that does not mean your child is not eligible, as long as the condition has persisted for “a long period of time” and “to a marked degree.”
  • A 504 plan is not a consolation prize. That requires an entire blog post of its own! So, see what Wrightslaw has to say on that here.
  • Just because the school said your child wasn’t eligible in second or third grade doesn’t mean your child is not eligible forever. You have a right to dispute eligibility findings and you have a right to ask again.
  • Nothing in the law requires children to fail before they are eligible for special education services.
  • If your child is experiencing depression or anxiety, help is available. You can reach out to NAMI-CT for local support groups and educational resources.

For more information on the process for getting your child identified, check out this blog post.