Gifted and Mentally Ill

Yesterday a friend ran across this on Twitter:

12063707_10156114576375254_6851884511504685436_nIf you’re a thinking person, you’d expect there to be a lot of conversation around this pair of tweets, and you’d be right.  It is frustrating, sad, and infuriating (among other things) that in the twenty-first century struggling people STILL face so much stigma, misunderstanding, and just plain pig-ignorance (no offense to pigs intended). I don’t know whether the original tweeter intended to be cruel, or demonstrate superiority, or what by tweeting such garbage DIRECTLY AT a mentally ill person in recovery. Frankly, I don’t care. It needs to stop.

But it’s hard to address this kind of ignorance when many medical professionals don’t do any better, and, in fact, themselves cling to stereotypes and erroneous preconceptions about the mentally ill. And you don’t see it much better than when you’re a gifted person trying to get help.

I’m trying to lay aside false humility for the duration of this post. It’s difficult. Even where mental illness isn’t a factor, gifted and talented people in our society learn that safety lies in blending in. Of course, I can point to numerous examples where this hasn’t been the case, more than enough for people who’d rather disagree than listen to cite as evidence that I’m wrong. We hear all the time about gifted and talented individuals who stand out, even those who overcome terrifying odds in their rise to the top. Stephen Hawking. John Nash. I wanted to include a woman in this list, but every search for some variation of “prominent gifted women” led me to a list of articles about “Why Gifted Women Hide.” Isn’t that interesting?

Anyway. Speaking about myself as a gifted and talented individual is difficult in a lot of ways. People in our culture (I’m speaking Anglo-American, but it may be true of others) give you shit for claiming to be smart. They tell you stuff like, “If you were as smart as you think, you’d…” (which happened on this blog), or warn you against “getting the Big Head,” or actively dismiss your thoughts and experiences. “Peers” taunt you for being weird and not fitting in. Adults have no idea what to do with you. If the way you’re gifted falls outside academic norms, even schools don’t recognize it. It’s better to keep your talents on the down low.

I’m not the smartest person I know, but since everyone I know who’s smarter than me lives a great distance away, I’m almost always the smartest person in the room. I started talking in complete sentences with multi-syllabic words at two (according to my mother). I read at four, could play most of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” by ear at five, and started policing my own vocal tics (phrases like “like” and “you know”) at seven. I was a mediocre student in both school and music because I could get by without working too hard and the usual teaching methods bored me. I have a hard time understanding why I need to “show my work” when the answers are obvious, and I despise jumping through hoops (though I can when it’s absolutely necessary).

I could go on in this vein. I’m not going to. It’s not what I wanted to write about, and the need continually to prove my intellectual cred to people who only care about invalidating it is a monumental waste of my time and energy.

I will add one more thing, however. In addition to being intellectually smart, I’m emotionally smart. When you grow up in a family as dysfunctional as mine, you kind of have to be, or else take the denial road, which is something I am constitutionally unfitted to do. I am aware of my own emotions and experience, and I am susceptible to other peoples’. (Interesting side note: I looked up “emotive” in the dictionary just now, and almost every definition of a a word derived from “emotion” contained terms like “excessive,” “undue,” and “theatrical.” It’s an old dictionary, and I can only hope things have changed). When I got bullied (starting at six or seven), my immediate reaction was “Wow, this hurts. How can anyone intend to hurt other people? I’m never going to do that.” When I started suicidal ideation at eleven or twelve, I understood it and knew it was dangerous and not supposed to be the usual experience for a girl my age. (To be honest, I wasn’t keen on what I understood to be the normal experience for a girl my age, either.)

I grew up in the sixties and seventies, and if you think mental health treatment is a nightmare now, BOW HOWDY! back then it might as well have been the dark ages. (Disclaimer: I am speaking from my experiences in the Detroit area, which has a far more parochial culture than one might suppose.) I’m not sure people used the words “mental illness.” So I felt like I must be crazy. But “crazy” had a very narrow and specific connotation, which involved the need for straight jackets. You were either “psychotic,” which means schizophrenic or manic-depressive (as it was called then), or “neurotic,” which meant you were probably bored. Before the advent of Prozac, the main medications available were Lithium, Phenothiazines, Barbiturates, and MAO inhibitors, which require so many dietary restrictions to prevent a fatal reaction that taking them is hardly worth the trouble (Another disclaimer: I’ve known people who have done well on them). Therapy, when you could get it, was Freudian. Personality therapies like Transactional Analysis had been around since the 50s, but didn’t really come into vogue until the mid 70s. There was no treatment model for a bright, suicidal teenager practicing self-harm. There was barely even language to address it.

One thing I notice a lot: In teen movies and YA novels there is almost invariably a Sympathetic Adult; i.e., an adult character who “gets” the troubled protagonist and serves as a support system and role model (this character doesn’t usually appear in dystopian fiction). There was no such character in my life. My school did have a “counselor,” but I have no idea what good she ever did, since she never seemed to interact with the kids I know needed help, and her sole recommendation to me was to make sure I “kept those grades up!” Whenever we did creative writing rather than essays in English class, I turned in emotive pieces full of cutting and blood. The only comments I ever got were things like, “Interesting imagery!” I cannot imagine something like this happening today.

From third grade on, I knew I was in bad shape and I desperately wanted help. I didn’t care about “what people will think,” whether I’d seem “crazy” or “strange” (I got those already). I didn’t care about hearing I was “over-dramatic;” I got that one, too, and I knew it was untrue because I knew my experience. I wanted to live, and I didn’t know how. There are many reasons I had trouble getting what I needed. And one of them was that everyone believed that since I was intelligent and articulate, I must be lying. Because “crazy people” bang their heads on the walls and froth at the mouth, apparently.

In tenth grade, I read Mark Vonnegut’s The Eden Express, about his struggles with schizophrenia. A quote from that book has stuck with me; if I ever got a word tattoo, that might well be it. “Knowing you’re crazy doesn’t make the crazy stuff stop happening.” Why do so many people in the mental health professions, even to this day, assume the exact opposite? Why do they think, once you understand you have a problem, you can just, though force of will, make it go away? Maybe because despite advances, mental illness is a dark territory, and people honestly do want to help, and they feel powerless in the face of brain chemistry. Maybe because for so very long, rich people with things like clinical depression and OCD and anxiety disorders–things for which there are now treatment options–got by because they were rich, and poor people just died.

There was limited language for mental illness in the 70s, so we made it up, inventing intricate metaphors to describe our emotional experiences. I shared some of the language with the first psychiatrist I ever saw. She asked me, “How REAL is this?” When I admitted it was a metaphor, she labeled me “Not schizophrenic” and threw me out. My first therapist listened to me talk about self-harm and suicidal thoughts for fifty minutes a week for nearly a year, and diagnosed me with needing a boyfriend. Another psychiatrist told me to my face that since I was so articulate I must be putting on a show to get out of doing my homework. Yet another, when I met him in the ER after a cutting episode so bad it frightened me, told me there was nothing wrong with me since I hadn’t actually endangered my own life. Until I threw a screaming fit at him–i.e., presented as less rational and more in the expected model of mental illness–he intended to send me home. My most recent psychiatrist told me to my face that I couldn’t be anxious without being anxious ABOUT something. As lately as five years ago, the last time I was hospitalized, they threw me out after four days because I was “Too smart to be there.” In over thirty years of trying to get support and help for my condition, I have been smarter and more knowledgeable about my experience than 100% of the mental health professionals to whom I’ve turned. For me, this has led to my consciously filtering what I tell my therapists and doctors, and telling them only so much as I think they can understand and handle. I protect them to protect myself. No one with a mental illness should have to do this, but for gifted people, it’s all too often the case.

And then someone loses the battle and people ask why. Why, when they were so smart, so talented, so funny, had so much opportunity, did they take the pills or use the gun? Because current practices in mental health do fuck-all for gifted people. That’s why.

I have stuck with mental health practitioners who were, at best, well-meaning and at worst ignorant as shit because I needed something to cling to, and those weekly meetings were better than nothing and the best I could expect. I’ve tried therapies I KNEW wouldn’t work “one more time” because maybe I wasn’t going deep enough before, or maybe I was doing it wrong before, and because I WANTED someone to know more than I did. I may have learned a lot about my process, but giving up my power in this way has also damaged me. The problem is, when you’re in pain, when your mental illness has you hard in its grip, you are in no position to advocate for yourself and/or challenge bad therapy. There really needs to be a pool of trained patient advocates whose business it is to call mental health workers out on their dogma and ignorance.

Training for both therapists and psychiatrists needs to change, too. After I completed my BA (people with serious mental illnesses don’t finish college), I looked into grad schools. A number of them required applicants to take the GRED in psychology. Since my alternative college hadn’t focused on things found on standardized tests, I bought a practice study book. I was appalled. 75% of the questions were things like, “Who was known for describing this particular stage of child development?” and “Who is considered the father of modern psychoanalysis?” Freshman psych stuff. After I finished the book, I decided not to take the test, or pursue an advanced degree in Clinical Psychology. Because HOW THE FUCK DO THOSE QUESTIONS HELP YOU HELP PEOPLE IN PAIN?

This has gone on longer and turned into more of a rant than I intended. I don’t know what to say in conclusion other than this: Mental Health Treatment needs to come out of the dark ages. The people we look to for help need to be able to hear us and keep up. They need to let go of the doctor mentality that keeps them comfortable in the supposition that they have knowledge their clients and patients don’t, and ask questions, explore, go deeper without fear. They need to do as much work as we do.

Otherwise they’re not doing anyone any good.




12 thoughts on “Gifted and Mentally Ill

  1. I get frustrated a lot with the mental health practitioners because I feel like I am literally at their mercy, and I know they are not always right or always trying to do what’s best for me.
    It’s a constant battle that I’m sure many people fight. I know I do. Right now I am trying to find a different doctor and it’s maddening. Good luck to you. Your post hit home with me in a lot of ways. Thanks

    1. You’re welcome, and good luck to you as well. Right now I’m on a single medication that mostly works and I’m not looking further. I hate to be in the “I guess this is as good as it gets for me” zone, but trying for more is exhausting.

      1. I’m in the “Oh shit I know it can be better than this, so why aren’t they doing what they need to do with my meds?” Lol
        Im tired too

  2. That was an engaging blog – Charlotte pointed me to it. I can empathize from personal experience with being bullied for being smart, but my response was different. I spent a lot of time in the principle’s office for drawing blood from those that bullied me.

    I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the problem with our mental health treatment being at best marginally effective. I’ve had several graduate students who suffer from depression or manic depression over the years. We seem to focus a lot on the rare mental conditions with an identifiable biochemical cause, we ignore things like viral or epigenetic co-factors, we almost complete dismiss things without an obvious physical cause, and we use drugs that suppress mind and personality because they also suppress symptoms. The side effects often seem worse than the condition. Its all very 14th century relative to, for example, trauma treatment.

    I think part of the problem arises from the fact we don’t even have a good frame of reference for talking about mind, conscious, and self awareness. Artificial intelligence seeks to duplicate the capabilities of intelligence and seldom manages to model natural intelligence. I’ve never seen a non-self-referential definition of self-awareness. Since I’m an AI researcher this is really annoying to me.

    In your blog you said a therapist told you that you cannot be anxious about being anxious about something. That strikes me as arrant nonsense? One of the members of my lab does exactly that and it helps build his insomnia. It is clear to me that self awareness has a strong component of self-referential thought? I don’t have any useful advice at this time, only sympathy. The very best of luck!

    1. Part of the problem with medications is that finding one that works is a crap shoot. They don’t *all* suppress useful emotion; in fact, when they work, they’re not supposed to. But doctors often settle for that because it’s the best they can do, or because they’ve been sold a bill of goods, and patients settle because they trust the doctors to know what’s up and don’t have what it takes to challenge. The result is people going off their meds and then reviling all meds because of their bad experience. My brother, a PhD chemist who works in R & D for pharmaceuticals, tells me part of the problem is that everyone’s brain chemistry is SO different that developing a depression med (or anxiety med, or whatever) that works for everyone on the bad symptoms without too many horrific side effects is impossible, practically speaking. And I have some thoughts about how this ties into concepts of self-awareness being self referential, but they aren’t clear yet.

      1. Sorry for the delay – still learning how the parts of social media work. Your remarks about “everyone’s brain chemistry is so different” is spot on. The problem with things all being different from one another is huge. I work with corn and we found a big chunk of the genome thats there in one breeding population and missing in another. Since brains develop in response to environmental cues as well as genetics, they are the poster children for individual variation. At that point we find the evil: only drugs that can be sold to lots of people are profitable. Individualized medicine will take a very different sort of company.

  3. Thank you for this post! This is exactly why I pressed on in work as a coach and mentor, but for gifted people, because when I was looking for professional mental health help as a gifted person, I felt exactly as you describe. Then I met my mentor who was gifted and told me I was too, and that changed everything.
    For anyone who is reading and in need of GIFTED professional help, I built an international team of GIFTED coaches and mentors (many of us are trained on psychology) at I did this for reasons you describe here! We also have a community for gifted peers around the world, because sometimes it’s not that we need professional help, it’s just that we need peers who are excited rather than threatened by our unusual minds…
    Awesome writing, thank you again! And btw, I grew up in the Detroit area too 🙂 Feel free to get in touch if ever you’d like to!

  4. I’m sad to hear that it was hard for you to get the help you needed. How giftedness affects therapy and what a therapist has to be able to do to be effective with GT clients is not very well studied yet. My own dissertation (which you can read for free at was on the therapeutic working alliance, giving GT folks to tell their own stories of having been in therapy and figuring out what messages clinicians needed to learn from them. I have not had a chance yet to convert it to book form, Steven Pfeiffer, an academic, is also working in this area. Most of the rest of the work on therapy and giftedness is just for school kids with adjustment disorder — some good stuff, but very limited in scope.

  5. I ran across this posting when it turned up in a Google search, so I am a little behind the times on it. I am a mental health professional, and gifted. I had a friend who was extremely gifted and also had bipolar disorder. It always struck me that, in addition to the intractability of his bipolar, the treatment offered to him beyond medication was just a horrible fit for someone with his brain power. The bell curve being what it is, it was extremely unlikely that he would ever find a therapist smarter than he was, but I always thought that if there were just better knowledge about giftedness and mental illness and some resources available to him, he might have fared better. He was offered some opportunities, but they just weren’t even close to being anything that would engage him.
    My vow is that when I’m retired and win the lottery I’m going to start a program for the gifted seriously mentally ill. Unfortunately, there’s little to no information on how to treat this population, so we’ll be breaking new ground at every turn.
    Best of luck to everyone.

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