I began to look into the prevalence of depression in adolescents after my experiences working with teens in public high schools and community-based mental health clinics. As these young adults entered my office complaining of feelings of “not belonging,” “being different” and “feeling misunderstood,” I noticed certain similarities in their hobbies and interests. Many of them were highly introspective, gifted in certain areas, with artistic interests and an aptitude for abstract thinking.
Undoubtedly, most of my adolescent clients seemed to go through some type of inner struggle during the process of identity formation. However, feelings of melancholy and themes of existential depression seemed to make a more frequent appearance in my sessions with highly creative and intellectually gifted teens.
The idea that creative or intellectually gifted adolescents might experience particularly angst-ridden emotions compared to their counterparts is not new. In a recent study by Young et. al (2012), a higher incidence of symptoms of depression was found in adolescents involved in arts activities.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has extensively studied the personalities and circumstances of highly creative professionals. He has looked into defining characteristics of artists’ formative years, most of whom described feelings of marginalization and isolation during their adolescence. In addition, the Davidson Institute for Talent Development looks into the emotional needs of gifted individuals (“gifted” meaning exceptionally talented or intelligent). Many of its programs address the symptoms of depression found in gifted teens, and in particular existential depression, such as concerns about the meaning of life, social withdrawal, hopelessness and low self-esteem resulting from feelings of not belonging.
In my interactions with these thoughtful and creative youngsters I started to wonder about the best ways to foster their unique identity and creative interests while, at the same time, treating potentially debilitating symptoms of depression. For educators, parents and mental health providers to effectively work with this group it is important to keep certain tips in mind.
- Choose the right words.
It is very important to be aware of how certain words can be interpreted as truthful descriptions of one’s identity. One of my 16-year-old clients, having heard family members repeatedly refer to him as “weird” for having a strong interest in poetry, deeply internalized the term and saw himself as someone who ought to isolate from others due to his “weirdness.” Replacing with words such as “interesting,” “unique” and “different” can be very helpful for these young adults who are constantly searching for ways to define and discover their identities.
- Provide structured opportunities for unstructured expression.
When adolescents get caught up in long school hours, state exams, private lessons, and after-school programs, it becomes hard for them to find structured time for their creative pursuits and interests. However, as the inner drive persists, one possible outcome is distractability from school tasks and lack of fulfillment. For example, a teen with a strong interest in robotics or comics needs to be given the choice and opportunity to spend a good amount of time on his or her interests. If this does not happen, they may end up having difficulty focusing on school or feeling disinterested in their daily activities.
- Actively value differences.
A common feeling in depressed teens is that of “not belonging.” This may be exacerbated by observations that the majority of their peers enjoy certain activities which they themselves do not enjoy. To actively value their differences in skills, interests and thinking behaviors means to avoid pushing unwanted activities and to encourage them to partake in activities of their choice. Balance between wanted and unwanted yet necessary activities (such as some form of exercise) is key. Also, group activities with peers who share the same interests are important for socialization skills and a sense of belonging.
- Smoothly integrate identity characteristics.
Questions such as “what am I really like?,” “how do others view me?,” “what do I have to offer?,” “am I and the things I do worthy?” are quite common in teens with bouts of depression or existential dread. Engaging in a dialogue about the child’s interests and nurturing, rather than dismissing, such thought processes will allow for a higher sense of self-worth. At the same time, however, it is important to engage in dialogues that emphasize the sense of wholeness and integration in one’s sense of self.
A young teenage violin player whose identity as a talented musician superseded that of a friend, daughter, student, athlete, or jokester began to feel extreme levels of pressure to maintain this representation. By ensuring that attention was placed on other areas in the teen’s life, and by reminding her that her giftedness was just one part of her, helped her feel more “normal,” connected to others and accepted.
Overall, gifted and talented adolescents may struggle with the process of self-discovery, self-acceptance and finding meaning in everyday situations. This becomes especially prevalent when accompanied by a sense of non-belonging, social marginalization and negative outlook on interpersonal relations. However, such negative feelings can be managed without limiting space for expression of creativity and intelligence. Finding the right balance between accepting and nurturing their unique traits, while also encouraging positive ties with peers, family and community is a feasible, realistic and fundamental goal.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery. HarperCollins, 2009.
Young, L., Winner, E. & Cordes, S. Heightened Incidence of Depressive Symptoms in Adolescents Involved in the Arts. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. Vol 7(2), May 2013, 197-202.