Why Gifted Children Suffer From Existential Depression

Sad young girl

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Depression can manifest itself in different ways in different people, ranging from a few days of feeling "blue" to a deep and lasting sense of despair. The term "existential depression" is used to describe a type of depression that revolves specifically around the fundamental issues of existence, such as life, death, disease, and oppression. Gifted children, who tend to be highly sensitive, analytical, and curious, are especially prone to this form of depression.

Why Gifted Children Are Prone to Existential Depression

While it is not uncommon for people to experience existential depression at times of transition or after a traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one or a natural disaster, gifted people may suffer from it spontaneously. In other words, they may experience existential depression without an apparent triggering event.

Existential depression can cause a gifted child to question the meaning of life. In its most severe form, they may conclude that life is meaningless.

Gifted people of all ages have unique traits that may make them vulnerable to this form of depression. They tend to be highly sensitive, intense, empathic, passionate, idealistic, and likely to analyze things more thoroughly than most people. When they notice injustice, mistreatment of others, poverty, and abuse of power in the world, they can feel hopeless and alone and wonder why those around them appear to be less concerned about these things.

Gifted children may feel isolated and different from their peers or family members. To them, other people may seem less introspective or reflective and their interests may seem, at least on the outside, to be more concrete or superficial. Gifted children are often highly attuned to the hypocrisy in the behaviors and assumptions of those around them, and question or challenge things others may accept and take for granted.

Existential depression can manifest itself in children as young as 5—the age at which kids typically begin to learn that they are not immortal. The death of a pet, a family member, or a tragic event featured in a book or on the news can spark the child's curiosity about death, causing them to worry about dying, and, possibly, to question the meaning of life.

Symptoms of Existential Depression

As with other forms of depression, the symptoms of existential depression can vary in intensity and severity.

Signs or symptoms of existential depression may include:

  • A belief that solutions to life's big problems are both impossible and futile
  • An intense or obsessive interest in the bigger meaning of life and death
  • Avoidance of other kids because they feel they are can't relate to them
  • Extreme distress, anxiety, and sadness about the overall state of the world
  • Feeling disconnected, isolated, and separate from other people
  • Lack of motivation to engage in once-enjoyable activities
  • Suicidal thoughts

If you or your child are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Health Impacts of Existential Depression

Coping with existential depression not only impacts a child's mental health but can cause physical health consequences and shifts in behavior as well. Some of these adverse impacts for kids with existential depression may include changes in their eating or sleeping habits, insomnia, gaining or losing weight, pulling back from peers, reduced immune function, and higher stress levels. They also may suffer from school refusal or have other academic or behavioral issues.

How to Help Your Child

There are no simple answers to many of the questions gifted children have about the world, so you can't simply reassure them that "everything will be okay." Instead, acknowledge that these are difficult issues without clear answers. It's important not to dismiss their concerns, criticize them for being "too sensitive," or tell them to look on the bright side. Instead, validate their feelings and assure them you understand they are struggling with big concerns.

If your child feels powerless to change things in the world, try to be proactive. You might research causes to support or get them involved in volunteer work at a soup kitchen or shelter. Giving back in these ways can help children feel like they're part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Reading about others who fought injustice or helped underserved, suffering people (such as Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, Malala Yousafzai, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Florence Nightingale) can also inspire them and provide a role model. Instead of feeling stuck and powerless to make a difference and enact change, they'll discover how helping others can make one's own life more meaningful.

When Existential Depression Persists

If your child shows more than fleeting signs of existential depression, ask your pediatrician for a referral to a mental health professional. An experienced psychotherapist can help them walk through concerns about life and the world and help them come up with some solutions to help them feel less hopeless.

If your gifted child appears inconsolable or is having suicidal thoughts, treat this as a medical emergency. Call your child's doctor or therapist right away. If needed, take them to the emergency room or call 911 for assitance. Kids who contemplate suicide need immediate intervention.

A Word From Verywell

Gifted children may be more likely to experience existential depression, as their minds tend to be more attuned to contemplating the big life and death issues facing the world. If you notice signs or symptoms of depression in your child or if they tell you they are struggling, be sure to get them the help they need by contacting their pediatrician and/or a mental health professional who specializes in treating gifted kids.

9 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Carol Bainbridge
Carol Bainbridge has provided advice to parents of gifted children for decades, and was a member of the Indiana Association for the Gifted.