Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Robin Williams ~
The Paradoxical Link Between the Gifted & Suicides
and a Dire Call to Action
Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Robin Williams ~
May 15, 2022
Centuries ago we have that mad scientist Hans Berger, who was the first to record EEG on human subjects & the discoverer of the rhythmic Alpha brain waves. And there was that crazy artist, Vincent Van Gogh. Fast forward some time, we have that neurotic inventor, George Eastman who invented Kodak roll film and that unbalanced writer Sylvia Plath. And then we have Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain and Robin Williams, amongst numerous others. What do they all have in common? Brilliant minds that fell into despair. Yes, they were all exceptionally talented. And yes, they all committed suicide. In fact, they were all not just exceptionally talented, they were "high ability adults" or "gifted adults". Why is there a paradoxical link between the gifted and suicide?
Dr. Kathleen (Kate) Noble, Professor of Consciousness in the School of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math at the University of Washington, points out that "gifted people are by no means disorder-free. We know there is a strong correlation between creativity and depression; creativity and mania". It is extremely prevalent among highly gifted sensitive adults. Generally the gifted adults begin with scattered anxiety, most times, they experience high functioning anxiety. High functioning anxiety typically refers to someone who experiences anxiety while still managing every daily life very well.
Looking back at the last 20 years of my adult life, there had been a handful of times when severe fear took over me, so much so I completely lost control of myself. During those times, medications of any sort that were normally effective, were completely overridden by my body. Accompanying that was a sense of impending doom. This fear, I couldn't explain, but I chalked it up to just me being scared of certain things. The dark. Funeral homes. Being alone. All legitimate fears. In the last year, I began to feel anxiety taking over certain situations but never did I think it was anxiety. You see, when I think of someone having anxiety, I picture a person with frazzled hair and hands held protectively close to her body as she shook and trembled. Or a person curled up in a ball, arms wrapped around the head because a panic attack was happening. Not me.
It has always been suspected by psychologists and therapists friends of mine that I may have been a gifted child and now a gifted adult. But I never cared because being gifted doesn't mean much in adult life. It wouldn't change what I am doing with my life now. So I went on with my life. As a high functional human, my life and brain has always been a speed bullet train. And recently, I have found a few times where something would trigger not only that impending sense of doom over me again, but now a new addition: the feeling that nothing I do is enough. A feeling of lack of impact. This anxiety has gotten to a new level that also triggers a string of remembrance of every childhood trauma I ever had. As close friends tried to dissect my situation, it was brought up a few times that gifted adults have a significantly higher risk of anxiety, depression and suicide. In fact, 68% higher. And suddenly I remember a short brief I had once written & posted in 2018.
My son, who is also gifted, is the classic example of what I was referring to in my post. In Kindergarten he was at an 8th grade reading level, his math skills were about 5th grade. Entering in a new school in first grade, he would come home mind boggled that he doesn't fit in. He doesn't understand why every child in class were learning how to count or add. His teachers were giving him assignments he would have done when he was two years old. He was very frustrated. Then in the second half of the semester, I had gotten more detention slips that ditto homework coming home. My son was acting out due to severe boredom. Now in 6th grade, he has one teacher who actually adores him but
would lovingly send emails to me frequently about how she can't control his talking in class. Or that he would be in other children's business. And yet another teacher would give me amazing comments about him with zero complaints and how he exemplifies leadership and helps other children in class. I couldn't understand. This happens every year. So I asked the teacher with no complaints why this is happening and his answer was, "he's simply bored. He already understood the assignment before it is explained and by the time the rest of the class picks up their pens to start the assignment, he is already done. This is everyday. And I just either give him a new task or just have conversations with him about the days news or basketball. He is a great child and never disruptive". But a teacher like this teacher, is rare. And someone like him certainly didn't exist when I was in school. I was lucky if I didn't have a stick whipping nun that paces the classroom as a teacher. And what was called the "Talented & Gifted programs" back then, were entirely based on grades. However, studies have proven time and again that gifted children often times actually do not excel in school. Many of these students are not driven to achieve in school for many reasons: boredom, lack of challenging curriculum, coexisting learning disabilities, they prefer learning for the sake of learning and out of passion, not for high test scores, social and emotional issues that comes with giftedness, amongst others. In a federal study published in the Journal of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, it results that gifted children do not have better achieving performance outcome in a gifted & talented school program that are based on acceptance by grades. This study was published in 2021. This shows that to date, we still have very limiting information on how to culture gifted children in a school environment.
Another issue is the word "gifted". It comes with an elitism stigma. People often think the individual is smarter, high IQ, brilliant, genius ... people aren't wrong, giftedness often comes with intelligence but what giftedness in reality is really all neurology. Gifted individuals are born with unique brain functioning–a true cognitive difference–which must be addressed in school when they are children. They are merely not smarter–they think differently, they learn differently, they perceive differently, and they sense differently. Their learning needs, much like students with learning disabilities, ADHD, dyslexia and others, are outside the norm. While it is not quantified as a special learning need, but in fact, it is. When a child needs extra attention, extra accommodation, it is a learning disability. In spite of the overwhelming amount of definitive professional and educational research studies and statistics which have proven, over and over, that gifted students have unique learning needs that must be met utilizing specific educational accommodations, we have seen the widespread decline of gifted programs in this country in the last years. This leaves our gifted children trying to learn in regular classrooms while becoming more and more frustrated and disillusioned with education. Unfortunately because of the misclassification of this group of children, it has left generations of these gifted children orphaned in a system that left them mentally misaligned with who they are and how they should function and perform in society later on. This misalignment is the culprit to the mental illness that many of these then gifted children, now gifted adults, are suffering from.
My worsening anxiety along with recent stress that manifested atypical behaviors has prompted me to contact MENSA and low and behold my IQ is 133, which is classified as gifted. And just like that, we have found the root of the problem. When the gifted are born into the world with a fast brain, fierce passion, the ability to see things penetratively and to feel things deeply. Oftentimes, their internal needs are not recognized even by the gifted themselves. Their needs are unmet, and anxiety comes into life. Many times, anxiety enters when they are gifted children. The anxiety would come in random episodes, intensifying as time goes on until it bleeds into depression. Most times it is described as pervasive, non-specific, numbing and immobilizing - in some cases, causes the sufferer to reach very logical conclusion that it makes more sense to end their lives. This kind of depression does not respond to drugs or conventional therapies for depression. "High functioning anxiety becomes problematic when it bleeds into depression," says Dr. Hamdani. "That's when most patients will start to seek help - when they are having trouble getting out of bed, difficulty sleeping , losing interest in doing things they enjoyed or thoughts of life not being worthwhile."
However, the problem isn't in the anxiety, or the depression itself. Gifted adults are born with their brains wired differently. "Gifted" is a very misleading term. Giftedness is no different than a neurodevelopment or learning disorder. We do not live in a country, not now and certainly not then, that physicians and educators are trained to identify gifted children. And even when gifted kids are identified, they are seen as the "smart ones". The ones that are left alone, because they don't need help. It's always the slow learners or the special ed kids that get the programs and the extra time and attention. Never the smart kids. A friend who was a teacher in NYC had told me, she had always wanted to advance the really smart kids in her class because she saw their potential. But when you have a class of 21 kids and a certain time limit a day, she can only have enough time to teach and help catch up with the ones that are falling behind. She never gets to the smart kids. The fact is, the US education system, in its laudable quest to make sure the worst students reach minimal standards, is cheating its best pupils. A 2008 report found that the NO Child Left Behind Act of 2001 indeed helped low-achieving students rise to meet a more rigorous course load, but shifted teachers' sights away from the gifted kids, who they said seemed capable of helping themselves stay on track. It seems like the country keeps going further and further in abandoning gifted children. Then you have teachers that are uninformative about characteristics and challenges of the gifted, and tend to pathologize some behaviors. When a student finish an in-class assignment early, the teacher may tell them to review their work, thereby amplifying the cycle of self-question and self-doubt. If the child, being a child that they are does things outside of the given task because of boredom, then they are penalized for "bad behavior". If the teacher gives another assignment to keep the child busy, the child will then think they are punished with more work. Children grow up only knowing their own experiences, so they may assume that they are messing up or missing something by completing their work so quickly. This is just one of many issues.
So what now? In medicine, we say there needs to be awareness and research. In this case, there are studies. There are researchers. But there is no action. It seems like the revolving door of studies and hypotheses comes to a stop with the results of data. Perhaps the bridge where these gifted children are being left behind linking to potentially detrimental, potentially fatal outcomes in their adult lives is not being emphasised enough? (And nevermind the consequence is also a human capital catastrophe they are creating with leaving this set of children behind.) Perhaps this group of children is too small in the population to be made a priority? But sometimes numbers don't mean anything when this very group can be the group of children that will grow up with ideologies and impacts that will change the world.
These researches, studies and thesis need to be taken and turned into a call to action. Educators need to know how to first recognize a gifted child like they would with a special need child. Then there needs to be a plan or program, just like special needs children have IEPs. Without a universal commitment to educate our gifted children, history will always repeat itself. There will be many more Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain and Robin Williams lost. There will be many more George Eastman and Vincent Van Gogh lost. To me, that's tragedy.
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