Pathologizing and Stigmatizing: The Misdiagnosis of Gifted People

Patricia CornwellLike many talented and creative people, novelist Patricia Cornwell has experienced mental health issues. She comments:

“I’ve had my own difficulties. My wiring’s not perfect and there are ways that you can stabilise that. I have certain things that run in my own ancestry.

“It’s not unusual for great artistic people to have bipolar disorder, for example…The diagnosis goes back and forth but I’m pretty sure that I am…I take a mood stabiliser.”

[Times (UK] via article: Jolie Cornwell Affair.]

Other highly talented people with mental health challenges include:

> psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison [see post: I fought the medication because I liked my creativity],

> writer and actor Carrie Fisher, [see Successful People Who’ve Struggled with Psychiatric Disorders],

> TV journalist Jane Pauley [see page: Bipolar Disorder].

Giftedness misunderstood

The list of highly talented and creative people who suffer anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems is, of course, limitless; being gifted does not exempt people from those problems.

But many health professionals may label attributes of giftedness negatively, as psychiatric problems or pathologies. And those of us who feel emotional intensities, existential depression and other experiences related to giftedness, may judge ourselves as “crazy” or somehow disordered.

Kathleen Noble, Ph.D., is a Professor and Assistant Director of the Early Entrance Program, University of Washington in Seattle, where she also has a private practice as a psychologist, working with gifted women.

In our interview, she said, “A number of my gifted clients are psychic or have psychic abilities. That’s only one place they might get pathologized.

“There are a number of qualities that gifted women possess that can easily get mislabeled and misdiagnosed… I have seen, particularly in adolescents, that gifted girls who are very high energy and high verbal are often punished by teachers for those qualities, and the qualities are then negatively represented, rather than positively acknowledged.”

Misdiagnosed and trying to fit in

The book Misdiagnosis And Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults by James T. Webb and others, affirms that “Many of our brightest, most creative, most independent thinking children and adults are being incorrectly diagnosed as having behavioral, emotional, or mental disorders.

“They are then given medication and/or counseling to change their way of being so that they will be more acceptable within the school, the family, or the neighborhood, or so that they will be more content with themselves and their situation.

“The tragedy for these mistakenly diagnosed children and adults is that they receive needless stigmatizing labels that harm their sense of self and result in treatment that is both unnecessary and even harmful to them, their families, and society.”

Related article: Mis-Diagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children: Gifted and LD, ADHD, OCD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder By James T. Webb, Ph.D.

Searching for Meaning - James WebbThis is a cover image for another book of his: Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope.

Dr. Webb comments, “It has been my experience that gifted and talented persons are more likely to experience a type of depression referred to as existential depression.”

Read more quotes in post: Gifted, Sensitive, In Need Of Meaning: Existential Depression.

He also addresses another aspect of high ability people that may lead to a sense of being “crazy” or even misdiagnosis: Overexcitabilities – see article Excitabilities and Gifted People – an intro by Susan Daniels.

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In her article Woman interrupted: misdiagnosis and medication of sensitivity and giftedness, Cat Robson asks:

“What makes creative and highly sensitive people accept, and even welcome, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or other mental illness?

“Are psychiatrists equipped to recognize and support creativity, high sensitivity and giftedness?

“Who determines where creative intensity ends and mental illness begins?

“Do medications put our creativity and sensitivity at risk?”

straight jacket - from post Sad Not Crazy by Nicole Lemelle

“I asked myself these questions as I began a journey back to a drug-free life after years on anti-depressants and other medications.”

She adds, “People who are creative and gifted often don’t fit within society’s common definitions of ‘normal.’

“And while some may embrace their uniqueness, others, like myself, may struggle for years trying to change themselves in order to fit in.”

Among other writers and mental health professionals who agree, Peter D. Kramer, author of Listening to Prozac, notes there is an ever-diminishing concept of ‘normal.’

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Scott Barry KaufmanPsychologist Scott Barry Kaufman comments: “I do believe that If the mental processes associated with psychosis were evaporated entirely from this world, art would suck. But so would a lot of other things that require imagination.”

In his book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, Kaufman writes about many topics related to creative people, and describes the painful and disruptive consequences of having been labeled as learning disabled when he was a child.

His experience was the result of several ear infections that had impeded his hearing, resulting in a central auditory processing disorder that interfered with his understanding of speech.

Read much more in article: Madness and creativity: do we need to be crazy?

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It can be profoundly valuable to acknowledge your attributes realistically, and explore the ways you are mentally healthy – or not.

If you experience disruptive symptoms, it may mean you should get help, or help yourself, to gain better emotional health so you can be even more productive and creative.

My list of articles and programs may be helpful:

Emotional Health Resources

More resources:

Book: Kay Redfield Jamison. Touched With Fire : Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament

Article: Misdiagnosis of the Gifted by Lynne Azpeitia, M.A. and Mary Rocamora, M.A.

Article: Challenged By Being So Smart – Psychologist and creativity coach Eric Maisel says that ‘smart’ people often experience characteristic challenges including “difficulties with society and the world, issues at work, challenges with your personality and your racing brain, and special meaning problems.”

Article: Eric Maisel on anxiety and developing creativity.
“Only a small percentage of creative people work as often or as deeply as, by all rights, they might be expected to work. What stops them? Anxiety or some face of anxiety like doubt, worry, or fear… anxiety is the great silencer of the creative person.”

Depression and Creativity site

Older pages:

Dysfunction / disorder resources : articles books sites

Bipolar Disorder quotes articles sites books


Originally posted 2006-05-11 22:31:00.


  1. […] Although it is classified among the pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs), like many people I think a better label for conditions like Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) is neurological or learning ‘difference’ – because, for one thing, what is “normal” anyway? Also, a number of experts note there is a very real problem of diagnosing such characteristics; see my post Misdiagnosis of gifted adults: Pathologized and stigmatized. […]

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