The Paradoxical Link Between the Gifted & Suicides:
The Science (Part 2 of 3 Series)
May 25, 2022
In a previous article, we've addressed the urgency to accommodate gifted children in school. We've proposed why there is such an urgency as the brilliant often times falls into despair and suicide, hypothesizing because they were unaccommodated gifted children.
Michele Kane, Ed.D., an Associate Professor and the President of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children, points out that stress is universal and experienced by everyone, and that “Being bright, talented, creative, motivated, smart, ambitious, and even good looking can add to the stress in your life. Academic success and drive aren’t enough to make life manageable. The world is too complicated and intense, and it’s changing too fast.” Even people with exceptional talents and accomplishments can feel insecure and struggle with low or unhealthy self-esteem. In fact, research has found, the more talented, the more gifted, the more accomplished, the more unhappy because there is such a big sense of unrealistically self-inflicted, high standards they set for themselves, that there is continuously a sense of failure despite the world seeing their glory.
To truly understand how the gifted brains function and how it is at such a severe risk of mental anxiety and depression, we must start from birth. The gifted are born into the
world with a fast brain, fierce passion, the ability to see things penetratively and to feel things deeply. Their brains function differently and are neurologically wired differently. Then as they get older, but as young as elementary school age, the gifted brain thinks about a big overwhelming concepts, but has trouble breaking it down to manageable parts. This holds true even for the gifted adults. It's just that the bigger overwhelming concepts become even bigger and more complex. The gifted are typically more sensitive, empathetic, and in tune with their emotions overall. They think about things in more detail than others their age and tend to overanalyze, so when they feel injustice at work or interpersonal relationships, they may experience a heightened sense of hopelessness from it.
Here is an example of how the gifted brain thinks about a big overwhelming concept, but has trouble breaking it down to manageable parts. A young gifted child may see homeless people on the street and feel exceptionally distraught by the many aspects of this social issue. The child is as yet unable to tease apart the various factors that contribute to homelessness, which requires a caring adult to provide guidance and suggestions, such as volunteering in a soup kitchen or collecting warm clothes for donation. When this child becomes the gifted adult, they will do everything they can including volunteering and collecting in effort to alleviate homelessness. But they will ultimately feel hopeless and useless seeing that it has not rectify the problem on a worldwide scale. This same concept also holds true to personal achievements and goals. They are “naturally” self-critical. The gifted has come to learn that they have the ability to fulfill more of the wide range of talents, in various fields of work than they can live. They can wear multiple hats, performing very different tasks well. However, the world and real life is much more limiting, demanding the gifted to work in one field. To do one job. This does, become another source of fuel for them to self-inflict a sense of inefficiency, not raising up to their capabilities.
Additionally, bright individuals also set a sometimes unrealistically high standard of what they themselves should be. Whether they know if they are gifted or not, they know they are capable of almost too many things. So they not only may see idealistic images of what they might be, but simultaneously and unconsciously, berate themselves because they can see how they are falling short of such an ideal. The intensity, combined with the idealism, magnifies the amount of self-evaluation, often leading to excessive and inappropriate self-criticism. There may also be pain in the sense of a vertical inner conflict between what is seen as one’s current level of realization and what could be, what is possible given advanced talents. This pattern often is the foundation for depression arising from anger and disappointment at oneself because of high self-expectancies.
The gifteds' minds are much more complex than researchers can ever really understand. Addition to aforementioned struggles, their extra-cognitive wiring also gives them the capacity for unusual insights for situations, data, things and people. Often times, this special point of view serves as talent in what they do, what makes them stand out. However the downside to that is that this very different perception is also what adds to their accumulative mental struggle. Their special abilities to see beyond the ordinary and the capacity for having immediate and spontaneous insights can make gifted adults feel detached, removed and strangely different from others.
At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that when a gifted individual struggles from depression or anxiety, they are not the typical image of depression or anxiety. They are so self-aware and so highly functional that all the mental struggles are contained. This is often a disservice for the gifted as it is hard for their families and close friends to be able identify that they are in fact, struggling. But if you look close enough, these sense of loneliness and depression do scatter around the works and expressions of gifted individuals.
John Lennon, who was gifted, once said in an interview that all he felt was loneliness. His ideologies, perceptions and thoughts, he recognized they are not the same as other people. "I must be going crazy or a genius", he said. He continues to explain about having read about individuals like Oscar Wilde or Dylan Thomas or Vincent van Gogh who were all the same. They had their own thoughts and were trying to express themselves but were tortured by society for thinking different. All there were, were loneliness within them. John Lennon reiterated that thought of loneliness many times even in his works.
It is apparent that the gifted adults' minds are bright, highly complexed, highly intellectual, and wired differently. Many of these individuals by middle age, begin to develop a sense of loneliness. While introverts are a minority group in society, they form the majority of gifted people. The gifted often times, feed on their inner world of concepts and ideas. They are deep thinkers. They sometimes live in their own inner world, even hours at a time. Researchers through a small study have found that a gifted introvert could be found sitting in class, watching television, in a car or even at a dinner table and can suddenly become quiet and zoned out. They are described as if they had an out of body experience, though very much aware of what is going on, but their minds were completely drawn inside their own world. Most times, introverts typically hide their inner worlds and rarely let others into them, which may lead people to make erroneous decisions about them and their needs. All these elements, as a gifted adult advances towards middle age years their inner self begins to realize that the world around them is under stimulating them. Their families, partner or friends are not up to par with their degree of complexities that can go on in their minds. The gifted may be unaware of this loneliness but they may feel that they could be often misunderstood or unparalleled even with their closest. This sense of loneliness also attributes to their intensifying anxiety and spiral to depression.
Suicides and the gifted is not often linked immediately despite the statistics leading to such conclusion. In 2017, William & Mary University saw such a dire need to shed light of this paradoxical link, that they set up an Institute for Research on the Suicide of Gifted. Tracy Cross has been researching the connection between giftedness and suicide for nearly 25 years, he comments, “What worries me isn’t so much that the prevalence rates [of suicide] might be higher among gifted", but the concern lies in that gifted individuals may be more successful in their attempts. Based on journals he has read from several gifted individuals who died by suicide, he believes this population may be better at planning and carrying out their plans, leading to a higher rate of completion. Often times these suicides are not impulsive decisions made but a well thought out, logical decision.
Based on their research at William & Mary, Tracy Cross and his team believe that a lack of positive social support ultimately contributes greatly to the demise of a suicidal gifted individual. First it begins with a proper education system that the gifted child can thrive in as we alluded to in our previous post. Second, for the gifted adult, it is to have the support of fellow gifted individuals who themselves have the same complexibities, experiences and understanding. "No conventional drug or therapy can truly help a gifted individual because the world lack that understanding of what goes on in their minds. They just need someone that speaks their language", Cross writes in a recent journal. He further adds that when the gifted are paired up, they can spot warning signs much easier than an outsider. As that they are also more comfortable in approaching each other in their grievances and dismay without judgement of each other.
While William & Mary Institute for Research on the Suicide of the Gifted is a fantastic start, but there is not enough fast pass research being done to bring this urgency to light. Sometimes in science, unfortunately people look only to data and to date, some can still call the numerous studies done, inconclusive. What does it take to bring this very much real, very much dire issue to light? How much more do they need to proof that it is important enough to bring a universal commitment on preventing another generation of the gifted from falling into despair? And what about the gifted adults now? We must find answers to this before history keeps repeating itself.
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