Teaching and Understanding Gifted Students Suffering from Depression

Summary of an Article from the English Journal

The Unrecognized Exceptionality: Teaching Gifted Students with Depression
by Susan Gardener

Many times teachers makes exceptions in our lesson plans, style of teaching, discipline strategies etc. for the usual reasons, a learning or behavioral disorder, mental disability, dyslexia, physical handicaps and so on. Teachers are encouraged, required, and rewarded for attending continuing education seminars on Scotopic syndrome, ADD, ADHD, as well as other disorders and/or diseases that can hamper even the most well planned lessons. However, a common exception is often made when teachers over look depression, for this disease is frequently under diagnosed, misdiagnosed and the worst case scenario is undiagnosed, and that reality is simply intolerable. Not only is depression a serious mental disease, but its most damaging effect, in extreme cases, includes death by suicide; this tragedy especially affects gifted children. Often times, because educators misunderstand the symptoms and are not familiar with strategies for handling a gifted student with depression, most fall through the cracks as unrecognized victims, and matriculate through school as emotional ticking time-bombs.

“Depression is a deceptive disease affecting up to eight and three-tenths percent of adolescents in the US”, taken from the National Institute of Mental Health. Gardener presents several alarming statistic in her article, including this number from McCracken (quoted in Bright Star-Black Sky) stating “one out of every ten high school students experiences some form of severe depression during the high school years.” Also, the US Department of Health and Human Services reported in 1999 that from 1980-1990 the suicide rate of youth ages 15-19 has increased 114% to climb to the fourth leading cause of death. Moreover, Jackson author of Bright Star-Black Sky: A Phenomenological Study of Depression as a Window into the Psyche of the Gifted Adolescent, notes that there are “higher incidents of depressive experiences for gifted teens.” With such “intensity, perfectionism, excessive self-criticism, hypersensitivity, intellectual and social isolation”, and higher adult expectations, talented children are easily predisposed to savage ravishings that depression unleashes on the human mind, heart and spirit.

The problem that depression poses for educators seeking to identify it is that “there is no blood, no wound, no cast or bandage that would tip us off that something is wrong with that gifted student who sits in the third row close to the front in our fourth period class” (Gardener 1). Most symptoms of depression are emotional and result in private displays because depressed students especially gifted children fear more rejection. Already rejected and isolated from their peers because of their aptitude, ability, and perspective, depressed gifted students avoid the sharing of their problems with their peers. Additionally, many times we deaden the true power and impact of depression by casually using the word to describe anything from a bad hair day to making one bad grade. Such trivial treatment confuses students as to the severity of their condition, and as a result they hold in their immense pain rather than tell of their battle with such a seemingly frail and trivial issue. Even more troubling is that many gifted students are able to hide their issues due to their increased creativity and intellect. Some deny their problems to try to fit in with their emotionally inaccessible peers, in order to hold on to any common ground with all their being. Gifted students will also put on a show or farce in order to keep a persona of the power and respect they believe the gifted rightly command.

To combat depression before it grows too powerful and is too late an English teacher can follow some easy guidelines or recommendations. Preventative measures include attending and requesting in-service education on this disease and gathering information on policies for handling those who might be at risk. Schuler in Gifted Kids at Risk: Who’s Listening begs teachers to “reexamine your own attitudes and beliefs about gifted children and adolescents”, for counselors to “get training on the intellectual, social, and emotional issues of gifted children and adolescents,” and also to pay attention to their writing. It is your legal and ethical responsibility to report any suicidal thoughts and writings.

In regards to a child being identified as depressed and what to do then, Gardener charges teachers with the following few recommendations: Allow students the time to heal. If a student had just undergone surgery or had just been in an accident, the P. E. teacher would not have them excessively exercising just like one of the healthy kids. So why would a teacher stress out a depressed and gifted student’s fragile recuperating mind? Teachers would do better to assign more meaningful work, rather than simple busy-work. By doing so educators will challenge their minds with tasks that can be comfortably completed, moderately challenging their intellect yet pleasurable as to ease them with the familiarity of success. This meaningful work will at the same time help build self-esteem and reaffirm the student is indeed special and gifted.

There is a unique two way relationship that is held by a teacher and their gifted students. A gifted student in a teacher’s classroom, not only depends on their professor for the extensive and challenging material gifted children need to become the best they can be, but the teacher depends on them for the extra challenge to their peers, that will push the other students to rise to the occasion. The task of recognizing depression in gifted students is daunting due to the nature of the symptoms and the uncanny ability of such students to cover up their struggles with their extraordinary creativity and intellect. This makes for an unfortunately trying time, but the success and triumph of early diagnosis is purely priceless.

The key to identifying this dreadful disease as I have understood it in this article is information, whether it is gathered from continuing education seminars, a student’s writing, or even talking with student’s counselors or parents. Thankfully, English teachers are easily able to stay abreast of the issues that their prize students are facing, by analyzing their writing not just for grammar, clarity, audience appropriateness etc…, but the tone, perspective, and style can be as tell tale as a continually beating heart.

Simply put wisdom is the starting gun and knowledge is the ability to help our gifted adolescents persevere through the rat-race of those emotionally and mentally hazardous teenage years. So teachers realize that you not only bear the responsibility of your students’ learning, but yield the ability to enhance and maybe even save a life. I personally understand the struggles that depressed gifted students endure, because I was one in my early years, and at times, struggle with it still to this day. But I made it, and I intend on helping someone else through it too. Thank you for your time.

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