Is Depression Neurodivergent?
There is presently debate over whether the millions of people with depression worldwide can be considered neurodivergent. Explore the research on depression and neurodivergence here.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
September 19, 2023
Table of Contents
Living with depression can make people feel like their experience of the world is different from their peers. It is for this reason, and several others, that some people believe depression should be considered a neurodivergent disorder. The neurodiversity movement, which focuses on inclusion, representation, and education, aims to support those who identify as neurodivergent by reducing the stigma around cognitive and experiential differences. Keep reading to learn more about the complex relationship between depression and neurodivergence and whether depression can be considered neurodivergent.
Is depression neurodivergent? The link between depression and neurodivergent conditions
When exploring whether depression can be considered a neurodivergent disorder, it is important to recognize that the experience of living with depression shares a great deal in common with the experience of living with other neurodivergent disorders.
Neurodivergence is an umbrella term that is meant to refer to people who may possess cognitive processing styles that differ from the norm. Within this framework, individuals who experience the world similarly to most of their peers are referred to as “neurotypical,” while individuals with marked differences in cognition are referred to as “neurodivergent.”
Historically, the term described individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD or autism for short), people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and people with other neurodevelopmental disorders such as learning disabilities. Neurodivergence is not a medical term or a clinical diagnosis. Rather, it is a term that aims to empower individuals with these conditions to reframe their experience as valid, help them embrace their differences, and promote acceptance for these individuals at the societal level.
Here are some reasons why people who have depression and clinicians may consider depression a neurodivergent disorder:
Compared to neurotypical people, neurodivergent individuals may have differences in social preferences, learning styles, cognition, communication, and the perception of their environment. Living with depression, especially if the symptoms are severe, can make a person identify with some of these common neurodivergent experiences. For this reason, some people with depression personally identify as neurodivergent.
Also, the brain of a person with depression has marked differences in the way that it produces and processes certain neurochemicals and neurotransmitters that affect sensory experience, cognition, and mood. In this way, depression shares much in common with disorders historically considered neurodivergent. Due to these neurochemical differences, along with the immense social barriers that many people with severe depression face, there are clinicians and members of the neurodivergent community who believe that depression qualifies as a neurodivergent disorder. These same people may also include other mental health conditions, like anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), in discussions about neurodiversity because of the way these conditions are often associated with altered brain chemistry and function.
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Is depression neurodivergent? Differences between depression and neurodivergent conditions
While people with depression may experience a sense of “otherness” and face similar social barriers to neurodivergent individuals, there is no agreed-upon definition for neurodivergent conditions, and they differ from depression in various ways. The concept of neurodivergence is constantly evolving, but based on the present criteria, depression is more often than not excluded from the designation. Here are some reasons why people who have depression and clinicians may not consider depression a neurodivergent disorder:
Treatment and remission
Depression is a treatable condition, whereas neurodivergent disorders are typically not considered treatable. With the correct treatment, a person with depression can not only improve the severity and frequency of their symptoms but can have their symptoms go into full remission. Traditionally, neurodivergent conditions are such that a person will live with the condition throughout their life, and remission is considered impossible.
Onset of condition
Most people first experience depression in their late teens to early twenties. On the other hand, the conditions commonly associated with neurodivergence affect individuals early in their life and are usually present during childhood. In other words, neurodivergent conditions tend to be associated with those that a person is born with.
The connection between depression and neurodivergence is complex. There is no solid consensus on whether or not certain mental health diagnoses, such as depression, can be considered neurodivergent. However, it is important to recognize that one of the neurodiversity movement’s primary objectives is to challenge the stigma and shame experienced by people who relate to the world differently than most of their peers. In this way, we can learn from the advocacy of those within the neurodiversity movement and work to help destigmatize mental health conditions such as depression—whether or not you consider it to be neurodivergent.
What disorders are considered neurodivergent?
The term neurodiversity is meant to highlight the neurological differences of all people, but, as mentioned, it often refers to neurological and developmental conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and learning disabilities. Spearheaded by the Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the 1990s, the neurodiversity movement emerged to promote equity and inclusion of neurological minorities, meaning people who possess cognitive processing styles that differ from the societal norm. The movement continues to advocate for better access to social services, education, acceptance, and social justice for non-neurotypical people. Additionally, the movement aims to help celebrate the differences of neurodivergent people and bring attention to the many personal strengths that exist within the community.
For example, while people with autism may have difficulties with communication, social interaction, and relationships, autism is also associated with cognitive strengths such as excellent attention to detail, memory for detail, and a strong drive to detect patterns. Similarly, people with ADHD can exhibit hyperfocus, resilience, creativity, conversation, skills, spontaneity, and abundant energy. Learning disabilities present endless opportunities for personal growth and achievement—all of which are highlighted by the neurodiversity movement.
One of the movement’s goals is to reframe these conditions as natural variations of the brain instead of diseases that must be fixed or cured. In doing so, the movement aims to reduce stigma and promote acceptance. It is important to note that the neurodiversity movement does not want to negate or dismiss the very real challenges that exist for neurodivergent people but rather wants to challenge and broaden the public’s conception and understanding of neurodiversity and what it means to be neurodivergent.
Can neurodivergent people be more prone to depression?
Due to the unique challenges that neurodivergent people face, they may be more susceptible to mental health conditions such as depression. Society at large is built to accommodate neurotypical people and often negates the needs of neurodivergent people. This reality can lead to social exclusion, bullying, and discrimination—all of which can negatively impact a neurodivergent person’s self-esteem and well-being.
The challenges and stress neurodivergent people face in the world can make them more susceptible to emotional and mental health challenges, research shows. A scientific journal article suggests that people with autism are four times more likely to experience depression in their lifetime than the general population. Additionally, according to Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), one out of every three people with ADHD also have depression or have experienced a depressive episode at some point in their life. Also, The Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities reports that people with learning disabilities are more likely than the general population to experience depression as well.
Many neurodivergent people have co-occurring mental health diagnoses like depression or anxiety. Still, not all neurodivergent people have mental health diagnoses, and being diagnosed with a mental health condition does not necessarily indicate neurodivergence. By embracing the objectives of the neurodiversity movement, which aims to tackle the social challenges encountered by neurodivergent people, it may be possible to reduce the risk factors associated with depression and depressive episodes in this population.
Therapy for depression
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people with depression reshape negative thought patterns and behaviors
Mindfulness-based therapies help people with depression practice awareness
Group therapy reduces depression for people with anxiety
Medications may also be used in the treatment of depression, in addition to therapy
Depression is a mental health condition that negatively affects how a person feels, thinks, and acts. It is characterized by feelings of sadness and a lack of interest in activities that once brought feelings of joy or pleasure. Depression can lead to various emotional and physical problems that can negatively affect a person’s ability to function daily, including disruptions to sleep, energy, and appetite.
However, healing from depression is possible as the condition responds well to therapy. Various therapeutic methods are available for treating depression. One of the most common therapies to treat depression is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps people reshape negative thought patterns and behaviors. Other therapies for depression include mindfulness-based therapies, which enhance awareness, and group therapy, which reduces isolation. In addition to therapy, medications may also be used in the treatment of depression.
How Charlie Health can help
If you or someone you love is struggling with depression, Charlie Health is here to help.
Feeling like your experience of the world differs from your peers can be overwhelming and may be a sign that it is time to reach out to a professional for guidance. Charlie Health’s personalized virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides mental health services for teens, young adults, and families, including neurodiversity-affirming therapy and neurodivergent-exclusive peer groups. Charlie Health’s comprehensive IOP combines group sessions, family therapy, and individual therapy to address complex mental health conditions, including depression and mental health conditions that co-occur in neurodiverse people.
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