Existential Depression in Gifted Individuals

Existential Depression in Gifted Individuals

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  1. #1

    Existential Depression in Gifted Individuals

    Great Potential Press - Guiding Gifted Learners

    Dr. Webb is co-author of the book Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults: ADHD, Bipolar, OCD, Aspergerís, Depression, and Other Disorders

    It has been my experience that gifted and talented persons are more likely to experience a type of depression referred to as existential depression. Although an episode of existential depression may be precipitated in anyone by a major loss or the threat of a loss which highlights the transient nature of life, persons of higher intellectual ability are more prone to experience existential depression spontaneously. Sometimes this existential depression is tied into the positive disintegration experience referred to by Dabrowski (1996).

    Existential depression is a depression that arises when an individual confronts certain basic issues of existence. Yalom (1980) describes four such issues (or "ultimate concerns")--death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness. Death is an inevitable occurrence. Freedom, in an existential sense, refers to the absence of external structure. That is, humans do not enter a world which is inherently structured. We must give the world a structure which we ourselves create. Isolation recognizes that no matter how close we become to another person, a gap always remains, and we are nonetheless alone. Meaninglessness stems from the first three. If we must die, if we construct our own world, and if each of us is ultimately alone, then what meaning does life have?

    Why should such existential concerns occur disproportionately among gifted persons? Partially, it is because substantial thought and reflection must occur to even consider such notions, rather than simply focusing on superficial day-to-day aspects of life. Other more specific characteristics of gifted children are important predisposers as well.

    Because gifted children are able to consider the possibilities of how things might be, they tend to be idealists. However, they are simultaneously able to see that the world is falling short of how it might be. Because they are intense, gifted children feel keenly the disappointment and frustration which occurs when ideals are not reached. Similarly, these youngsters quickly spot the inconsistencies, arbitrariness and absurdities in society and in the behaviors of those around them. Traditions are questioned or challenged. For example, why do we put such tight sex-role or age-role restrictions on people? Why do people engage in hypocritical behaviors in which they say one thing and then do another? Why do people say things they really do not mean at all? Why are so many people so unthinking and uncaring in their dealings with others? How much difference in the world can one person's life make?

    When gifted children try to share these concerns with others, they are usually met with reactions ranging from puzzlement to hostility. They discover that others, particularly of their age, clearly do not share these concerns, but instead are focused on more concrete issues and on fitting in with others' expectations. Often by even first grade, these youngsters, particularly the more highly gifted ones, feel isolated from their peers and perhaps from their families as they find that others are not prepared to discuss such weighty concerns.

    When their intensity is combined with multi-potentiality, these youngsters become particularly frustrated with the existential limitations of space and time. There simply aren't enough hours in the day to develop all of the talents that many of these children have. Making choices among the possibilities is indeed arbitrary; there is no "ultimately right" choice. Even choosing a vocation can be difficult if one is trying to make a career decision between essentially equal passion, talents and potential in violin, neurology, theoretical mathematics and international relations.

    The reaction of gifted youngsters (again with intensity) to these frustrations is often one of anger. But they quickly discover that their anger is futile, for it is really directed at "fate" or at other matters which they are not able to control. Anger that is powerless evolves quickly into depression.

    In such depression, gifted children typically try to find some sense of meaning, some anchor point which they can grasp to pull themselves out of the mire of "unfairness." Often, though, the more they try to pull themselves out, the more they become acutely aware that their life is finite and brief, that they are alone and are only one very small organism in a quite large world, and that there is a frightening freedom regarding how one chooses to live one's life. It is at this point that they question life's meaning and ask, "Is this all there is to life? Is there not ultimate meaning? Does life only have meaning if I give it meaning? I am a small, insignificant organism who is alone in an absurd, arbitrary and capricious world where my life can have little impact, and then I die. Is this all there is?"

    Such concerns are not too surprising in thoughtful adults who are going through mid-life crises. However, it is a matter of great concern when these existential questions are foremost in the mind of a twelve or fifteen year old. Such existential depressions deserve careful attention, since they can be precursors to suicide.

    How can we help our bright youngsters cope with these questions? We cannot do much about the finiteness of our existence. However, we can help youngsters learn to feel that they are understood and not so alone and that there are ways to manage their freedom and their sense of isolation.

    The isolation is helped to a degree by simply communicating to the youngster that someone else understands the issues that he/she is grappling with. Even though your experience is not exactly the same as mine, I feel far less alone if I know that you have had experiences that are reasonably similar. This is why relationships are so extremely important in the long-term adjustment of gifted children (Webb, Meckstroth and Tolan, 1982).

    A particular way of breaking through the sense of isolation is through touch. In the same way that infants need to be held and touched, so do persons who are experiencing existential aloneness. Touch seems to be a fundamental and instinctual aspect of existence, as evidenced by mother-infant bonding or "failure to thrive" syndrome. Often, I have "prescribed" daily hugs for a youngster suffering existential depression and have advised parents of reluctant teenagers to say, "I know that you may not want a hug, but I need a hug." A hug, a touch on the arm, playful jostling, or even a "high five" can be very important to such a youngster, because it establishes at least some physical connection.

    The issues and choices involved in managing one's freedom are more intellectual, as opposed to the reassuring aspects of touch as a sensory solution to an emotional crisis. Gifted children who feel overwhelmed by the myriad choices of an unstructured world can find a great deal of comfort in studying and exploring alternate ways in which other people have structured their lives. Through reading about people who have chosen specific paths to greatness and fulfillment, these youngsters can begin to use bibliotherapy as a method of understanding that choices are merely forks in the road of life, each of which can lead them to their own sense of fulfillment and accomplishment (Halsted, 1994). We all need to build our own personal philosophy of beliefs and values which will form meaningful frameworks for our lives.

    It is such existential issues that lead many of our gifted individuals to bury themselves so intensively in "causes" (whether these causes are academics, political or social causes, or cults). Unfortunately, these existential issues can also prompt periods of depression, often mixed with desperate, thrashing attempts to "belong." Helping these individuals to recognize the basic existential issues may help, but only if done in a kind and accepting way. In addition, these youngsters will need to understand that existential issues are not ones that can be dealt with only once, but rather ones that will need frequent revisiting and reconsideration.

    In essence, then, we can help many persons with existential depressions if we can get them to realize that they are not so alone and if we can encourage them to adopt the message of hope written by the African-American poet, Langston Hughes:

    Dreams

    Hold fast to dreams,
    For if dreams die,
    Life is a broken-winged bird
    That cannot fly.

    Hold fast to dreams.
    For if dreams go,
    Life is a barren field
    Covered with snow
    .

    - Langston Hughes
    snail, Inner Cosmos, LadyJava and 112 others thanked this post.



  2. #2

    That article is awesome!! I don't consider myself gifted in the least. But as a child I did have questions that adults could not understand. And now that I am adult I can see why no one could answer my questions. And to I have experienced depression an and off throughout my life. Wonderful article. Thanks for sharing.
    Selene, Jennywocky, Nymma and 2 others thanked this post.

  3. #3

    Quote Originally Posted by Hurting View Post
    That article is awesome!! I don't consider myself gifted in the least. But as a child I did have questions that adults could not understand. And now that I am adult I can see why no one could answer my questions. And to I have experienced depression an and off throughout my life. Wonderful article. Thanks for sharing.
    ditto ditto

  4. #4


    I'm not try to come off as conceited or arrogant, or anything else of the sort, but I really related to this article, more than I've related to anything in quite a while. I just wanted to post some comments about it.


    Existential depression is a depression that arises when an individual confronts certain basic issues of existence. Yalom (1980) describes four such issues (or "ultimate concerns")--death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness. Death is an inevitable occurrence. Freedom, in an existential sense, refers to the absence of external structure. That is, humans do not enter a world which is inherently structured. We must give the world a structure which we ourselves create. Isolation recognizes that no matter how close we become to another person, a gap always remains, and we are nonetheless alone. Meaninglessness stems from the first three. If we must die, if we construct our own world, and if each of us is ultimately alone, then what meaning does life have?
    BAM! Instant hit.
    Death. I've been thinking about this so much lately, and I'm trying to come up with a reasonable answer to this. What happens after you die? What really happens after you die? Where do you go? People have souls. I can see it. It's life, souls are, and every body has them. Energy can't just disappear when people die. When a body is lifeless, it's actually missing something. But where does that something go? What happens? And how can you prove it? How? You can't, can you? I just don't know, I've stayed yup hours trying to just figure it out but I can't, and my teacher wonders why I'm late to school the next day.

    People are born to be free, right? To do what they please, think what they want. That's part of the reason people have minds, to think what they wish, have their own thoughts, dreams, aspirations. So why do we take this away? something dies in people after they start working and getting a job. Some people, like my mother, say it;s the 'realization of reality', bu i'm not so sure. I think it;s that real responsibility hits, and you don't have time to do the things you actually want to do. What kind of life is that? Why should you have to work, non stop, just to get by? Why aren't we allowed the time to live, and enjoy? Everything revolves around work...no one is free. You don;t get the choice to be sent to school for 12 years or however long it is. You don't get any say. do you have any idea how many art projects, how many movies, how many pictures, poems, songs, i could have finished in that amount of time? My time that I want to live is being stolen from me, because other people think it's what's 'right'. It's not!! Why can;t I have the freedom to do something I love? Why do I have to work for such long periods of the day, against my will...because somebody else says so?? what right do they have to dictate what I'll be doing with my life until I'm 16, when i'm 'legally' allowed to drop out? I hate it. This is why we don't have any more people like leonardo di vinci or Einstein. they get KILLED. No one has freedom to do what they want, because everything is so structured and there's so many exspectations of what you should be doing instead of what you want to be doing. But that's so contradictory. You live in America, the land of the free....after you finish high school. You can pursue your dreams...after you get a job. What?

    Everything is meaningless, if we have to live like this. See above. Why does it have to be this way, why? The world could be so much better, but no one cares.



    Why should such existential concerns occur disproportionately among gifted persons? Partially, it is because substantial thought and reflection must occur to even consider such notions, rather than simply focusing on superficial day-to-day aspects of life. Other more specific characteristics of gifted children are important predisposers as well.
    Because gifted children are able to consider the possibilities of how things might be, they tend to be idealists. However, they are simultaneously able to see that the world is falling short of how it might be. Because they are intense, gifted children feel keenly the disappointment and frustration which occurs when ideals are not reached. Similarly, these youngsters quickly spot the inconsistencies, arbitrariness and absurdities in society and in the behaviors of those around them. Traditions are questioned or challenged. For example, why do we put such tight sex-role or age-role restrictions on people? Why do people engage in hypocritical behaviors in which they say one thing and then do another? Why do people say things they really do not mean at all? Why are so many people so unthinking and uncaring in their dealings with others? How much difference in the world can one person's life make?
    I'm an idealist. Imagine that.
    AGE ROLE RESTRICTIONS. I hate age restrictions! =I would type an paragraph fpr this one, but i would end up being several pages, and I really don't want to get started on that. Basically, i find it frustrating that because other teenagers are stupid, i have to pay the consequences and not get the rights I wish I could have.

    and as far as the way the world should be, the world is full of limitless possibilities. The inventions, the ideas, everything, is limitless. So why are we holding back when we should be moving forward?

    How much difference can one persons life make? I wonder about this one every fucking day. I've looked at it from so many points of view, and each one comes up with a different answer. Like the starfish mentality. When there's thousands of starfish stuck on the shore after the tibe on the ocean goes down, and a man tosses as many as he can back into the water. Another person goes up to the man and asks "Why do you even bother throwing them back in? It makes no difference, there's so many." The fisrt man looks at the stranger, picks up another starfish, and simply says "It made a difference to that one." as he throws it back into the ocean waves. Meaning: Say the starfish was a person. Can that man really make that much of an impact on another person's life? and if you make an impact on somebody else's life, even just one persons, is it enough?
    Then look at it from the cosmic viewpoint. You are tiny compared to the earth. The earth is tiny compared to the sun. The sun is tiny compared to the universe, and so on. What makes you think, that your tiny little life, has any impact on the universe whatsoever? It's doesn't. You're tiny, small and insignificant. Now shut up.


    When gifted children try to share these concerns with others, they are usually met with reactions ranging from puzzlement to hostility. They discover that others, particularly of their age, clearly do not share these concerns, but instead are focused on more concrete issues and on fitting in with others' expectations. Often by even first grade, these youngsters, particularly the more highly gifted ones, feel isolated from their peers and perhaps from their families as they find that others are not prepared to discuss such weighty concerns.
    My mom laughed at me when I tried to share this with her, and every so often while i'm in the car she overdramatically and insultingly asks me "What is the meaning of life?" It makes me so mad, so mad. I just tell her to ask me again next time I have a dictionary, that way I can simply read the definition to her. i'm partly joking, partly not, because I wish she'd understand. My teachers don't 'get me'. I've had several convinced I'm a genius, and tell me so. i'm just kinda like, ehhhh. But when they ell me this, and im starting to think someone understands and i can finally discuss more important issues in life, thy just kinda look at me and don't ever know what to say. I want to say I've given up on finding somebody who understands, but maybe one day...
    (That paragraph probably didn't make alot of sense)


    When their intensity is combined with multi-potentiality, these youngsters become particularly frustrated with the existential limitations of space and time. There simply aren't enough hours in the day to develop all of the talents that many of these children have. Making choices among the possibilities is indeed arbitrary; there is no "ultimately right" choice. Even choosing a vocation can be difficult if one is trying to make a career decision between essentially equal passion, talents and potential in violin, neurology, theoretical mathematics and international relations.
    Sometimes I have to stay up until 4 in the morning, when I know I have school tomorrow, because I have this sudden burst of inspiration, and i have to use it because I never know when It's coming back again. More often then not,when this happens, it;s for a period of three days where i'm running of of 2 hours of sleep a day, because of school. I want to go to school and do my art projects, but I end up not doing as well of a job as i should on either because I feel like I have to do both. Is this making any sense? I wish so much that there was just more time to do what I wanted.
    The reaction of gifted youngsters (again with intensity) to these frustrations is often one of anger. But they quickly discover that their anger is futile, for it is really directed at "fate" or at other matters which they are not able to control. Anger that is powerless evolves quickly into depression.
    In such depression, gifted children typically try to find some sense of meaning, some anchor point which they can grasp to pull themselves out of the mire of "unfairness." Often, though, the more they try to pull themselves out, the more they become acutely aware that their life is finite and brief, that they are alone and are only one very small organism in a quite large world, and that there is a frightening freedom regarding how one chooses to live one's life. It is at this point that they question life's meaning and ask, "Is this all there is to life? Is there not ultimate meaning? Does life only have meaning if I give it meaning? I am a small, insignificant organism who is alone in an absurd, arbitrary and capricious world where my life can have little impact, and then I die. Is this all there is?"
    That's all i have to say about that. Thank you for posting this, marino, it was extremely interesting. I think I might suffer from this.
    snail, Selene, Chilln and 20 others thanked this post.

  5. #5

    -hug- for victoria
    Viktoria and mushr00m thanked this post.

  6. #6

    I related to that completely. When I was young, I felt like nobody understood, and just thought I was weird for worrying about those kinds of things. Yes, I was labeled "gifted" by adults who had no idea what to say or do, but more importantly, I was labeled "crazy" by my peers, who had a much greater impact on my sense of self-worth.
    Psilo, isthatheidi, Nymma and 3 others thanked this post.

  7. #7

    This is the primary form that my depression takes.
    mushr00m thanked this post.

  8. #8

    Whenever someone told me I was "gifted", I would always tell them "I couldn't possibly be gifted. I'm not depressed, bipolar, Aspy, ADHD, or any of those things." And while I was joshing, such is often the case.

    What I'd be really interested in is a study that compared "healthy" gifted individuals with "unhealthy" gifted individuals, and tracked them from childhood through adulthood. I'm interested in rooting out the differences.

    I have this weird underlying fear that many gifted children have "made a deal with the devil", in that their gifts come at the price of their mental wellbeing. However, the mentally "healthy" gifted children are just blessed with the right genes and environment without having to cut any deal, but this is rare. Anyone else ever get this feeling?
    agv, spifffo, Goodewitch and 6 others thanked this post.

  9. #9

    Quote Originally Posted by Viktoria View Post
    People are born to be free, right? To do what they please, think what they want. That's part of the reason people have minds, to think what they wish, have their own thoughts, dreams, aspirations. So why do we take this away? something dies in people after they start working and getting a job. Some people, like my mother, say it;s the 'realization of reality', bu i'm not so sure. I think it;s that real responsibility hits, and you don't have time to do the things you actually want to do. What kind of life is that? Why should you have to work, non stop, just to get by? Why aren't we allowed the time to live, and enjoy? Everything revolves around work...no one is free. You don;t get the choice to be sent to school for 12 years or however long it is. You don't get any say. do you have any idea how many art projects, how many movies, how many pictures, poems, songs, i could have finished in that amount of time? My time that I want to live is being stolen from me, because other people think it's what's 'right'. It's not!! Why can;t I have the freedom to do something I love? Why do I have to work for such long periods of the day, against my will...because somebody else says so?? what right do they have to dictate what I'll be doing with my life until I'm 16, when i'm 'legally' allowed to drop out? I hate it. This is why we don't have any more people like leonardo di vinci or Einstein. they get KILLED. No one has freedom to do what they want, because everything is so structured and there's so many exspectations of what you should be doing instead of what you want to be doing. But that's so contradictory. You live in America, the land of the free....after you finish high school. You can pursue your dreams...after you get a job. What?
    This is a soapbox I've been standing on for a really long time. My older son had to go to school, and he never fit their mold. It was trouble almost from the beginning. I took my younger son out of public school after his second grade year, and I homeschooled him the rest of the way through. It was actually "unschooling," because I allowed him to study and spend time doing the things that he was naturally good at. Contrary to what most people think, children love to learn...they just need the freedom to learn what they're interested in. My son is constantly doing something, learning, researching, digging for whatever.

    He's 18 now, and he loves music. Everyone else is telling him he needs to get a job, but I said "No, you pursue your music." If he gets a job, he won't have as much time to continue to develop his musical abilities. He works for me when he needs extra money, and we're both happy with that. If he had gone to public school from grades 3-12, how much time would have been taken away from his dreams? He has my complete support!
    snail, Viktoria, Chilln and 11 others thanked this post.

  10. #10

    I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also was a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
    The article reminded me of this quote.
    Quote Originally Posted by Azrael View Post
    This is the primary form that my depression takes.
    Yes.
    Quote Originally Posted by LadyAutumn View Post
    This is a soapbox I've been standing on for a really long time. My older son had to go to school, and he never fit their mold. It was trouble almost from the beginning. I took my younger son out of public school after his second grade year, and I homeschooled him the rest of the way through. It was actually "unschooling," because I allowed him to study and spend time doing the things that he was naturally good at. Contrary to what most people think, children love to learn...they just need the freedom to learn what they're interested in. My son is constantly doing something, learning, researching, digging for whatever.

    He's 18 now, and he loves music. Everyone else is telling him he needs to get a job, but I said "No, you pursue your music." If he gets a job, he won't have as much time to continue to develop his musical abilities. He works for me when he needs extra money, and we're both happy with that. If he had gone to public school from grades 3-12, how much time would have been taken away from his dreams? He has my complete support!
    You sound like a pretty badass mom ^^
    snail, Chilln, Lucretius and 6 others thanked this post.


 

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