Existential depression in gifted individuals
Webb, J.
Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG)

This article by James Webb discusses existential depression among gifted young people. He examines what it is, how it may manifest in a gifted child, and what a parent can do to help their child through these difficult feelings. He points out that gifted young people are more likely to have this type of depression because of their more highly developed sensitivities.

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:

    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


Dabrowski, K. (1966). The Theory of Positive Disintegration. International Journal of Psychiatry, 2(2), 229-244.

Halsted, J. (1994). Some of My Best Friends Are Books: Guiding Gifted Readers from Pre-School through High School. Scottsdale, AZ: Gifted Psychology Press, Inc. (Formerly Ohio Psychology Press).

Webb, J. T., Meckstroth, E. A. and Tolan, S. S. (1982). Guiding the Gifted Child: A Practical Source for Parents and Teachers. Scottsdale, AZ: Gifted Psychology Press, Inc. (formerly Ohio Psychology Press).

Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

Permission Statement


Contributed by: Student on 5/12/2016
Like other commenters, I felt a huge wave of relief wash over me after reading this article. I cried as I realized I have never been alone in feeling this way. The existential isolation I feel and continue to feel is difficult to describe, but this article manages to pinpoint its origins. I wish I had read this when I was younger, because it was so hard to convey the anguish I felt, and couldn't accurately connect with anyone on this matter. A piece of positivity: I wouldn't identify as depressed any longer, but I have a unique perspective as I've reorganized my existential thoughts into a positive, productive structure for life. I want those who are still struggling with depression to know that it really does get better. I still get flashes of anxiety and minor depressive episodes when I think too long about existence and meaninglessness. This hasn't gone away, and I don't expect it to. But to be able to turn those thoughts into productive actions takes practice. Good luck to those who are struggling. You are not alone.

Contributed by: Student on 5/3/2016
I came upon this article in search of inspiration that I could give to a friend in need, whom I've spent the last two and a half years loving dearly, and whom now is suffering from a psychosis which I can only hope is short-term. I speak of an ex-lover and a very gifted person who happens to be quite young (21) whereas I'm going to be 33 in November. Nevertheless, I want to touch on my own response to this article. I want to express how I still feel like the young person who struggles with existential depression. I feel like it has been with me since I was 12 and hasn't left. It's made it seemingly impossible to fully commit to life decisions due to over-analyzing just about everything, and even my great ideas aren't good enough for me. I wish to express this to the college students in particular, mainly because I relate to you the most, as I'm still finishing my degrees. What I would say to you is just do whatever you really like doing and give it your "all" because whatever it is you're going to do well or will take what you've learned and apply it to something better because you are the gifted youth. Do what you like and don't look back or ahead too far. Make something. Write something. Deconstruct something. Travel to something. Like the article said, life is a series of forks in the road and all you have to do is choose the one you truly like. Just develope yourself by actively doing things you like. Break the stereotypes, the family patterns, the rules if you must and always follow your flowering heart. If you don't you will always have that depression or be managing it topically. There's no time to be depressed when your loving that you're experiencing what it's truly like to be gifted, because that is what you are! Thank you. I'm done crying.

Contributed by: Student on 5/2/2016
I cried after reading this. Just like everyone else it felt so spot on and reassuring. I wake up everyday questioning ideas, laws, actions, and go back to bed with only a few questions answered. Being gifted means having empathy, empathy to see things from a person's concern, and that gives us understanding. I'm 19 and about to graduate from university, everyone thinks I'm 22 cause I fit in so well and act even more mature than them. It's like I'm living a life that's not meant to be mine but I know I'm supposed to live this life cause it's fate. I wish I could honestly meet some of you to talk about these things. For example I agree with money being used as a unit of value but not a store of value, if you get what I mean. Also read Plato's allegory of the cave, it'll help. I don't know if anyone would read this but thank you, I don't know why I'm thanking you but that's all I can really do. I encourage you to give thanks more often too cause that's all we can do, be grateful for whatever comes.

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