Depression and the Gifted

January 1, 1970

By Mark Erlandson

Gifted children are unique in so many ways, but are they unique when it comes to depression? The most cited piece of scholarly literature on the psychological well-being of gifted children is “The Impact of Giftedness on Psychological Well-Being: What Does the Empirical Literature Say?” (Neihart, 1999). This meta-analysis reviewed dozens of findings, primarily from research conducted in the 1980’s and 1990’s, in the areas of giftedness and self-concept; depression, anxiety and suicide; social competence; deviant behavior; and psychiatric disorders. The first piece of good news is that Neihart found that gifted students did not have any higher levels of depression than their non-gifted peers nor, after some early findings to the contrary, that there was any higher prevalence of either suicide attempts or ideation among gifted adolescents. Next, the meta-analysis concluded that anxiety levels among gifted children were actually lower relative to their non-gifted peers. Finally, the research concluded that any connection between giftedness and self-concept was inconclusive, given the variety of factors that affect self-concept. (There was, however, some evidence to suggest that students in segregated gifted classrooms had lower self-concepts than those in only part-time classrooms.)

On the issue of social competence, Neihart found that the gifted population was diverse and that whether a particular child had the necessary social skills to cope depended on “their specific domain of talent, their degree of giftedness, and their self-perceptions or other personal characteristics.” Specifically, he found that the verbally gifted felt less socially accepted and self-important than the mathematically gifted and the extremely gifted were more at-risk than the moderately gifted.

Finally, the author concluded, “Intellectually or academically gifted children who are achieving, and participate in special educational program [sic] for gifted students are at least as well adjusted and are perhaps better adjusted than their non-gifted peers. These children do not seem to be any more at-risk for social or emotional problems. It is clear then from the research that giftedness does influence psychological outcomes for people, but whether those outcomes are positive or negative seems to depend on several factors that interact synergistically. These factors are the type and degree of giftedness, the educational fit or lack thereof, and one’s personal characteristics.

That’s the good news. Now for the bad. First, some researchers question the methodology of Neihart’s study arguing that some segments of the gifted population were underrepresented.

Next, some research, in particular a study by SENG (Supporting the Educational Needs of the Gifted), suggests that gifted children may be more likely to suffer emotional or social difficulties because of their “overexcitability,” perfectionism, and other differences from the norm. “Poorness of fit” of educational programming was identified in the SENG study as a major component leading to a depressive state because of the ensuing social isolation.

Gifted children appear to be especially susceptible to a type of depression called “existential.” Existential depression occurs when a child (or adult, for that matter) confronts the big issues of life like death, freedom, isolation and the meaning of life. It is sometimes called “what’s the point” depression. Though sometimes the result of a major loss, the belief is that gifted children are more prone to this type of depression because they, on their own, reflect more often on these issues rather than on the more superficial aspects of our day-to-day existence.

Additionally, research suggests that highly gifted children are extremely adept at masking the symptoms of depression. Those symptoms include social withdrawal, acting out in an immature manner, “the acute intellectualization of all phenomena, and highly focused pursuits that preclude engaging in a broader social context.” Often, there is a physical component as well, such as ill health and loss of appetite. Gifted children try to hide these symptoms both out of a sense of shame and failure and their perception that they need to protect others from their emotional state as well as the belief that others just would not understand.

What should be done about those gifted students who do struggle with psychological disorders? Early intervention is critical. Treatment for major depression usually includes psychiatric consultation and medication and psychotherapy. Because of the unique attributes of a gifted child, researchers advise finding a clinician familiar with these children. Gifted children who are suffering from “existential” depression are aided by knowing that others, including adults, have similar experiences. Touch is also helpful, whether a hug or just a fist bump. Ultimately the studies returned to the conclusion that a compatible educational fit and a connection to other highly gifted teens create the best possible circumstances for good emotional health.

And, after all, isn’t that what the IEA is all about?

Mark Erlandson, the parent of a gifted student who presently attends a boarding school out East, is a former lawyer and public high school English teacher from Wisconsin starting a new business as a legal writing consultant.

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