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An Overview: Understanding and Assessing Suicide
in the Gifted
By Andrew S. Mahoney, M.S.,
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. There are several factors that counselors,
parents and teachers should understand to precipitate earlier and
better suicide assessment and intervention among the gifted. These
include a clear understanding of the signs of suicide and the possible
connections between mood disorders, hypersensitivity and suicide
in the gifted.
Signals of Suicide
The most common signs of suicide
(adapted from Overcoming Depression, Papolos & Papolos, 1992) include:
- Changes in sleep and/or appetite patterns,
- Decline in school performance,
- Increased social withdrawal,
- Loll in interest and pleasure in previously
- Changes in appearance, for instance no longer
caring for one's clothes,
- Preoccupation with themes of ones death or the
theme of death itself,
- Increased irritability and behavioral problems,
- Giving away important possessions,
- Use of drugs and alcohol,
- History of a previous suicide attempt,
- History of abuse and neglect,
- History of learning disabilities and a sense
- Frequent somatic complaints,
- al expressions of self death statements such
as "I wish I were dead,"
- No longer concerned about making plans for the
- Depressed mood.
Becoming aware of these symptoms
will enable those who work and live with the gifted to more quickly
identify children who may be in need of assessment or intervention.
It is also important to note that many signs of suicide are also
indicators of mood disorders.
Mood Disorders and Hypersensitivity
A great deal of research is being
conducted to show some relationship between mood disorders, such
as depression, manic-depression and cyclothimia (a milder form of
the latter), and genius (Jamison, 1993; Hershman & Lieb, 1988; Shaw
& Runco, 1994). This should be of significant concern to anyone
working with the gifted population because mood disorders are the
most commonly known cause of suicide. An important place to start
is with the awareness that a mood disorder is a biochemical condition
of the brain. Psycho-social environmental factors can trigger a
mood disorder in someone who is predisposed genetically or chemically
(Papolos & Papolos, 1992). When it comes to suicide and the gifted,
culturally we tend to romanticize the notion by placing great emphasis
on the legendary qualities of the deceased, as in the recent death
of musician Kurt Cobain. There was virtually no mention of any mental
illness playing a role in his suicide, yet there was an abundance
of reporting on how talented he was as a musician. Kay Redfield
Jamison (1993), in her book Touched with Fire, does an excellent
analysis of gifted well-knowns and their plight with mood disorders.
More connections and associations are being made as to how one variable
may interface with the other.
Jamison is also able to demystify
the hypersensitivity of gifted persons. It has been suggested that
a link between the gifted and suicide may lie in the areas of hypersensitivity,
independent nature and asynchronous development, which may create
internal struggles and vulnerabilities far beyond the ego capabilities
of the gifted child (Hayes & Sloat, 1989; Webb, Meckstroth & Tolan,
1982). Emphasis needs to move in the direction of understanding
the hypersensitivity of gifted people and providing nurturing and
accepting environments for them. Based on what we know about the
vulnerability of the gifted, it could be speculated that the gifted
may be more susceptible to suicide.
Because nearly half of all suicide
victims suffered from depression (Papolos & Papolos, 1992), counselors,
teachers and parents must be aware of the characteristics associated
with a mood disorder along with the signs of suicide. Keep in mind
that when assessing suicide with the gifted population, you are
dealing with potentially manipulative individuals, possessing well
developed defense mechanisms. Having the added edge of brilliance
in this circumstance is not always a gift.
- Delisle, J.R. (1986). ³Death with honors:
Suicide among gifted adolescents.² Journal of Counseling and Development,
- Hayes, M.L. & Sloat, R.S. (1989). ³Gifted
students at risk for suicide.² Roeper Review, 12.
- Hershman, D.J. & Leib, J. (1988). The key
to genius: Manic depression and the creative life. New York: Prometheus
- Jamison, K.R. (1993) Touched with fire: Manic-depressive
illness and the artistic temperament. New York: Free Press Macmillan.
- Papolos, D. & Papolos, J. (1992 Overcoming
depression. New York: Harper Collins.
- Shaw, M.P. & Runco, M.A. (1994). Creativity
and affect. New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Corporation.
- Webb, J.T., Meckstroth, E.A., & Tolan,
S. (1982). Guiding the gifted child. Columbus: Ohio Psychology
This article first appeared in Counseling
& Guidance Newsletter, Winter, 1995, Volume 5, Issue 1
© Copyrighted material from the National Association for
Gifted Children (NAGC). This material may not be reprinted without
permission from NAGC, Washington, D.C. (202-785-4268). On the
web at www.nagc.org.
Andrew S. Mahoney, MS, L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is
director of The Counseling Practice of Andrew S. Mahoney , a counseling
center for the gifted and talented. In addition, he is past chair
of the Counseling and Guidance Division of the National Association
of Gifted Children, and a trainer and supervisor of counselors.
For 20 plus years, Mr. Mahoney has explored and developed frameworks
for the counseling and psychotherapy of Gifted and Talented individuals.
His work offers a new and original perspective for those interested
in better serving this unique population. He is also a professional
pastel artist. To view his online web porfolio, click
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