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Depression and Giftedness

The content on this page is provided for informational purposes only. This information is NOT medical or counseling advice. Be sure to consult your mental health care provider or your physician if you suspect your child or teen needs mental health services.

Depression is a very real mental illness that can affect children and teenagers. Research in the field of gifted children has its share of mixed findings, in terms of a taglet's vulnerability to depression. Some researchers conclude that higher intelligence serves as a shield, if you will, from depression. These findings suggest that gifted children have better reasoning skills and metacognitive abilities to understand and deal with stressors that they encounter in life.

Other findings state that the very nature of certain gifted characteristics put some children at greater risk for depression. Perfectionism, for example, may create a cycle of failed expectations within the child's mind. Or, superior intelligence may result in social isolation that a young child may not understand and, consequently, blame themselves for.

So, how do parents and therapists understand a gifted child who is going through a hard time?

According the the DSM-IV TR, before Major Depression can be diagnosed, the following factors MUST BE RULED OUT:

  • The symptoms do not meet criteria for a Mixed Episode, where the depression rapidly changes with behaviors such as racing thoughts, excessive involvement in pleasurable activities, inflated self-esteem, or distractability with irrelevant matters;
  • The symptoms are not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (ex- illegal drugs or prescribed medications) or a general medical condition (ex- hypothyroidism);
  • The symptoms are not better accounted for by Bereavement (ex- after the loss of a loved one, the symptoms persist for longer than 2 months or are characterized by marked functional impairment, morbid preoccupation with worthlessness, suicidal ideation, psychotic symptoms, or psychomotor retardation.)

Ruling out certain factors is an important part of the diagnostic process, especially if you're considering using medication as part of your child's treatment plan. For example, if you see serious depression mixed with periods of manic behaviors, then you and your mental health care provider may want to investigate the possibility of bipolar, which is treated with a different type of medication than what is used for straight depression.

Gifted children are at-risk for early drug and alcohol use, the same as their normally developing peers. Asking your child directly if they have been using any substances is one way of ruling out this factor. However, if you have unlocked liquor in your home and you suspect something amiss, you may want to monitor content levels in bottles or if it's been watered down. The same holds true for prescription pain medication that is in your bedroom or bathroom.

Another area to rule out, not mentioned in the DSM, would be educational placement that creates situational depression. Research shows that when a poor educational fit exists for a gifted child, depression can set in.

For example, schools who refuse accommodations force a child to sit through 6+ hours of boredom day. When you add an antagonistic teacher who may belittle the child for daydreaming of punish him for reading during class to the mix, you have a recipe for emotional disaster.

In a case such as this, depression very well may be exhibited by the child, but the treatment plan should focus on changing the environment, not the child.

Once you rule out certain factors, the DSM-IV TR requires that AT LEAST FIVE (5) of the following symptoms have been present during the same 2-week period and represents a change from previous functioning BEFORE you can diagnose Major Depression.

At least one of the symptoms MUST BE either (1) depressed mood or (2) loss of interest or pleasure.

  1. Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day, as indicated by either subject report (ex- feels sad or empty) or observation made by others (ex- appears tearful). In children, a depressed mood can look like irritability;
  2. Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities mos of the day, nearly every day (as indicated by either subject report or observation made by others);
  3. Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain (ex- change of more than 5% of body weight in a month), or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day;
  4. Insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day;
  5. Psychomotor agitation or retardation nearly every day (observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down);
  6. Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day;
  7. Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt (which may be delusional) nearly every day;
  8. Diminished ability to think or concentrate or indecisiveness, nearly every day;
  9. Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide.

When you consider these criteria, keep in mind that a difference exists between natural traits of gifted children and symptoms of depression.

Consider symptom #7, for example. Gifted children commonly develop an advanced sense of moral reasoning. A younger child with a strong conscience may not know how to handle volatile emotions that come with a new realization abut injustices that occur in the world. Think about the gifted child who feels extreme guilt because you hit a deer with the family car while driving her to a birthday party. In a case like this, the child may take on a level of responsibility and guilt that seems grandiose or delusional to others.

Overexcitabilities may also exist within a gifted child. "More" seems the best world to describe these kids. They have more energy and need less sleep. They feel emotions more strongly and react more vociferously than their peers. Their brain seems to work more hours than there are in a day. When considering depression criteria, such as #4 and 5, remember to ask yourrself, "Is this behavior new within the last month? Or, is this they way he's always been?"

Finally, the DSM-IV TR requires the symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning before a Major Depression diagnosis can be rendered.

Major Depression is a serious illness for some people. While all teenagers go through periodic ups and downs, it's important to ask questions and take action if they seem "down in the dumps" for more than 2 weeks.

If any indication exists that your child thinks about suicide, has a plan for how they can kill themself, or has attempted suicide - no matter how serious of an attempt you may think it was - you should seek immediate professional help for your child.

The content on this page is provided for informational purposes only. This information is NOT medical or counseling advice. Be sure to consult your licensed professional counselor, or your physician, if you suspect your child or teen needs mental health services.


March 30, 2020


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