Suicide among the gifted
The Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page on Depression and Suicide quotes Maureen Neihart:
“Although it is a popular notion that gifted children are at risk for higher rates of depression and suicide than their average, no empirical data supports this belief, except for students who are creatively gifted in the visual arts and writing.
“Nor, however, is there good evidence that rates of depression and suicide are significantly lower among populations of gifted children.”
From Gifted Children and Depression by Maureen Neihart, in the book The Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Children: What Do We Know? by Maureen Neihart, Sally M. Reis, Nancy Robinson, Sidney Moon.
Neihart also notes, “There seems to be a greatly increased rate of depression, manic-depressive illness, and suicide in eminent creative people, writers and artists especially. The incidence of mental illness among creative artists is higher than in the population at large.”
From Creativity, the Arts, and Madness – by Maureen Neihart, Psy.D.
[Photo is from my article Challenged By Being So Smart – see list of articles at bottom.]
A news story about two Caltech students who died of suicide in the weeks before commencement a few years ago made me wonder again: Do more gifted people die from suicide?
Are high ability people more vulnerable?
The Caltech students who died in 2009 were senior Jackson Ho-Leung Wang, a mechanical engineering student from Hong Kong, and junior Brian Go, a computer science and applied and computational mathematics major from Maryland.
The Caltech Counseling Center page Information on Depression and Suicide reports:
“In the general U.S. population it is estimated that 2 to 3 percent of men and 4 to 9 percent of women are depressed at any given time. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death in U.S. college students, and suicide in the young has tripled over the past 45 years.”
One example of a creatively gifted person who died by suicide was Sylvia Plath [1932 – 1963].
She published her first poem when she was eight and was “Sensitive, intelligent, compelled toward perfection in everything she attempted,” according to the Short Biography on sylviaplath.de.
“She was, on the surface, a model daughter, popular in school, earning straight A’s, winning the best prizes.”
She described one of her suicide attempts in her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar.
“After a period of recovery involving electroshock and psychotherapy Sylvia resumed her pursuit of academic and literary success, graduating from Smith summa cum laude in 1955 and winning a Fulbright scholarship to study at Cambridge, England.”
Psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, who has written books on depression, including her own, says “Plath, like many people with dramatic lives, suffered from severe depression.
“Teenagers may appreciate Plath because they are experiencing intense moods and emotions for the first time. They are also at the average age for the onset of depression.”
(See quotes by Jamison in article Pathologizing and Stigmatizing: The Misdiagnosis of Gifted People.)
(The image is a self-portrait by Sylvia Plath, from my profile page on Sylvia Plath.)
On March 16, 2009, Plath’s son, Nicholas Hughes, an expert in freshwater fish, committed suicide at the age of 47.
A news story reported, “Unlike his sister Frieda, who has dealt with their harrowing family history partly by talking about it and scrutinising it in her writing, her poetry and her art, Dr Hughes had always actively avoided the subject.
“I never heard Nick tell anyone about his parentage,” his friend Joe Saxton said. “He wasn’t embarrassed; it just wasn’t something he wanted to be a feature of him. That’s the irony. He spent his life trying to get away from all this, to find a place where he could be himself. Then the stupid bugger commits suicide and starts it all up again.”
From Ted Hughes death, not Sylvia Plath, tipped son Nicholas into depression, The Australian.
Trying to “get away” from your depression may be a natural impulse, but when it becomes active and enduring denial of depression, it may be deadly.
Sinead O’Connor realized her ‘demon’ needed medical attention: “I began to have this quiet little voice every now and then – although ‘voice’ is the wrong way to put it. It’s your own thoughts just gone completely skew-whiff: ‘Look at that tree, you might hang yourself on it.’ Until the volume went up so loud that I took myself to hospital.”
Unfortunately, there are not always alarms.
A serious issue
In Growing Up Gifted Is Not Easy, Elaine Aron, PhD. writes, “This piece was inspired by an article in The New Yorker titled “Prairie Fire,” about the suicide of a gifted early-adolescent boy. His death came as a complete surprise to everyone who knew him.”
In his article An Overview: Understanding and Assessing Suicide in the Gifted, Andrew S. Mahoney, M.S., L.P.C., L.M.F.T. writes, “When discussing the topic of suicide among the gifted population, one runs into the same divergent, often unexplainable, ambiguity associated with this special population.
“Though there is no conclusive evidence that the gifted are more prone to suicide than the non-gifted (Delisle, 1986), suicide among the gifted is a serious issue.”
Social pressure to achieve
High Sensitivity, existential dread – these may be among the reasons high ability people may be vulnerable to suicide, whether or not at a higher rate. But another reason may be social pressure to achieve.
The article Push to achieve tied to suicide in Asian-American women (CNN) notes, “One study has shown that as young as the fifth grade, Asian-American girls have the highest rate of depression so severe they’ve contemplated suicide… ‘Model minority‘ pressure — the pressure some Asian-American families put on children to be high achievers at school and professionally — helps explain the problem.”
Whatever the pressures, whatever the mental health challenges, even people with suicidal depression can be helped. But they need to get help.
Some related articles:
Growing Up Gifted Is Not Easy By Elaine Aron, PhD
“This piece was inspired by an article in The New Yorker titled “Prairie Fire,” about the suicide of a gifted early-adolescent boy. His death came as a complete surprise to everyone who knew him.”
3 Things To Learn From The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – A Gifted Trauma Survivor By Lisa Erickson, MS, LMHC
“Lisbeth Salander survives traumas that might lead to addiction or the suicide of a less resilient character. Giftedness contributes to her resiliency by aiding her problem solving, which increases her ability to cope.”
Challenged By Being So Smart
Sharon M. Barnes, MSSW, LCSW, works with children, teens and adults who are creative, sensitive, intense, and often gifted people, and comments in an article of hers about some of the qualities and challenges she sees in her practice of many years: “Creativity and creative expression can be fun but can also be a great burden.”
Psychologist Eric Maisel comments: “I think that a lot of problems that we experience, things that we call depression and what-have-you, may in fact be the challenges of being smart.” (See much more in the article.)
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