Suicide Among Gifted Adolescents:
How to Prevent It
Denise de Souza Fleith
University of Brasilia
The rate of suicide among children 10 to 14 years of age increased 100%
between 1980-1996. Among youngsters 15-19 years of age, the rate of increase was
114%, making suicide the fourth leading cause of death for this age group (U.S.
Department of Health & Human Services, 1999). While suicide rates among adults
have steadied or declined over the past few decades, suicide rates of young
people have increased (Teenage Suicide, 2000a). The literature has
reported affective states, environmental conditions, and interpersonal problems
as suicide risk factors (Blatt, 1995; Dixon & Scheckel, 1996; Hayes & Sloat,
1990). Although literature on the relationship between suicide and giftedness is
scarce, as are the statistics involving suicide rates among gifted adolescents,
characteristics often associated with gifted and talented young people are also
viewed as suicide risk factors (Dixon & Scheckel, 1996).
The most salient characteristics of gifted adolescents that may be associated
with vulnerability to social and emotional disturbances are: (a) perfectionism,
(b) supersensitivy, (c) social isolation, and (d) sensory overexcitability
(Delisle, 1986; Dixon & Scheckel, 1996; Fleith, 1998; Hayes & Sloat, 1989).
Driven by a self-oriented or socially prescribed perfectionism, the individual
establishes high and rigid standards. To do the best is no longer enough and the
individual feels frustrated no matter how well he/she performs (Lajoie & Shore,
1981). Excessive concern about errors, in addition to high parental and societal
expectations, can result in depression and absence of self-worth. Many gifted
youngsters believe they are loved for their grades, honors, and special
abilities. As a result, they do not allow themselves to fail or make a mistake.
" The shame and guilt of 'failure' can lead them to suicide" (Nelson & Galas,
1994, p. 47).
In the school environment, attention has been paid to raising standards and
testing students. Academic success and cognitive development have been the focus
of educational goals, especially for gifted students. Students may feel the
pressure to succeed. However, the emotional and social development of these
youngsters has been neglected by the school. As explained by Pollack (Teenage
Suicide, 2000b), "you cannot separate out students' emotional report card
from their academic report card" (p. 22).
Supersensitivity may be associated with gifted students' heightened awareness
about world problems and their feelings of frustration and powerlessness about
making changes that can affect the world. Feelings of being abnormal or
experiencing rejection from peers can lead the talented adolescent to experience
severe identity problems. Finally, gifted adolescents who present traits of
sensory overexcitability such as high energy levels, emotional intensity,
unusual capacity to care, and insatiable love of learning may not find a
receptive environment. The lack of support from family, peers, and teachers may
also contribute to self-concept problems (Lovecky, 1993). When one or more of
these issues occur, potential problems emerge. Gifted adolescents' inability to
deal with complex and intense feelings may be a source of vulnerability that can
contribute to suicidal thoughts.
Parents and teachers must recognize warning signals of suicide risk to
successfully intervene. It is not merely because the adolescent is gifted that
he/she is immune to emotional distress. According to Nelson and Galas (1994),
some of the signals are:
- Suicide threats: Adolescents may either directly or indirectly tell others
that they plan to commit suicide (e.g., "I have decided to kill myself," "I
wish I were dead," "I just cannot go on any longer," "I am getting out; I am
tired of life").
- Sudden changes in behavior: Adolescents may begin to perform poorly in
school, skip school, stop caring about how they look, lose interest in the
things they used to love, sleep more than usual, stay out late for no reason,
or present sudden weight changes.
- Withdrawal from friends: Adolescents may prefer to stay in their rooms and
not socialize with others.
- Giving away treasured possessions: A suicidal adolescent may pass along
his/her favorite items saying he/she will not need them anymore.
- Tying up loose ends: Adolescents may present a sudden desire to take care
of details such as answering a letter that is overdue, or returning something
he/she has borrowed.
- Poor self-esteem: Adolescents can feel they are not capable of doing
things (e.g., "I cannot do anything right," "I am stupid"), they perceive
themselves as worthless and unlovable, or they stop getting involved in
activities. This behavior is associated with lack of enthusiasm, low energy,
and lack of motivation.
- Increased irritability: Adolescents who want to commit suicide may present
aggression, rebellion, and disobedient behaviors towards parents, friends, and
teachers. These sudden outbursts are unusual and surprising and may isolate
the student from others.
- Self-destructive behavior: Suicidal youngsters may act as if they are
trying to hurt themselves (e.g., driving cars or bikes recklessly, carrying a
gun, smoking and drinking heavily, developing anorexia nervosa or bulimia).
"Autopsies of adolescent suicide victims show that one-third to one-half of
the teenagers were under the influence of drugs or alcohol shortly before they
killed themselves, according to HHS statistics" (Teenage Suicide, 2000a, p.
It is difficult to develop a plan to prevent suicide without considering the
role of family, school, peers, and community. Parents should assist gifted
- Provide mutual trust and approval (Silveman, 1993a).
- Support children's interests (Silveman, 1993a).
- Value creative and intellectual efforts (Silveman, 1993a).
- Provide quality time and communication (Silveman, 1993a).
- Respond to children's needs (Silveman, 1993a).
- Reconcile their demands with their children's aspirations (Silveman,
- Acquire more information about adolescent suicide (Nelson & Galas, 1994).
- Become involved in finding solutions to the suicide problem (Nelson &
The school environment can contribute to suicide prevention:
- Fulfill the needs of gifted and talented students.
- Schedule individual and group counseling as a part of the educational
gifted curriculum (Farrel, 1989).
- Provide training on suicide prevention to school personnel (from bus
drivers to custodians to teachers) to help them recognize behavioral clues
that a student is at risk (Delisle, 1990; Teenage Suicide, 2000b).
Teachers should also read students' essays attentively. Many of them may
contain references to suicidal thoughts.
- Provide resources on suicide prevention to school staff (Delisle, 1990).
- Provide training on suicide prevention to students who may act like peer
helpers (Nelson & Galas, 1994).
The school should also provide opportunities to gifted students:
- Learn how to set priorities and avoid overcommitting themselves
- Understand their strengths and weaknesses (Silverman, 1993b).
- Develop self-acceptance and recognition of their limitations (Silverman,
- Reframe the notion of a mistake as a learning experience (Silverman,
- Develop problem-solving and communication skills (Silverman, 1993b).
- Challenge the idea that suicide is an honorable solution (Cross, Cook, &
- Deal with tense situations with humor (Webb, Meckstroth, & Tolan, 1983).
- Identify the sources of stress (Nelson & Galas, 1994).
The school should also:
- Create an environment where students feel comfortable talking about their
difficulties. Male students are not usually encouraged to talk about emotions
so they are guided toward physical outlets. According to the U.S. Department
of Education (Teenage Suicide, 2000a), "teenage girls attempt suicide three
times as often as boys do, but males are four times more likely to finish the
job" (p. 22).
- Create an environment where students are encouraged to dream and use their
- Implement activities that nurture and highlight students' interests,
strengths, and abilities.
Community resources such as libraries, as well as working with professionals
and mentors can provide an important cognitive and emotional support for the
gifted adolescent (Fleith, 1998).
Educators and parents must turn their attention to the emotional and social
needs of gifted and talented youngsters. It is important to remember that some
youngsters may be at risk. According to the American Association of Suicidology,
it is urgent to promote and create conditions (in the family, school
environment, and community) that will nurture cognitive and affective needs of
young people. As Boldt wrote: "Human dignity is rooted in a good life, a sense
of community, a positive self-worth, and so on. We promote human dignity when we
provide these life conditions" (1989, p. 7).
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