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. 25).
It is difficult to develop a plan to prevent suicide without considering the role of family, school, peers, and community. Parents should assist gifted children:
- 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, 1993a).
- Acquire more information about adolescent suicide (Nelson & Galas, 1994).
- Become involved in finding solutions to the suicide problem (Nelson & Galas, 1994).
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 (Silverman, 1993b).
- Understand their strengths and weaknesses (Silverman, 1993b).
- Develop self-acceptance and recognition of their limitations (Silverman, 1993b).
- Reframe the notion of a mistake as a learning experience (Silverman, 1993b).
- Develop problem-solving and communication skills (Silverman, 1993b).
- Challenge the idea that suicide is an honorable solution (Cross, Cook, & Dixon, 1996).
- 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 imagination.
- 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).
American Association for Suicidology
National Association of School Psychologists
Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network
Suicide Resources on the Internet
Youth Suicide Prevention Program