Relationships between Depression and High Intellectual Potential
Catherine Weismann-Arcache 1 ,2 ,* and Sylvie Tordjman 3 ,4
in our own research on high potential, we have been comparing a group of children referred to the National Center for children with high intellectual potential (CNAHP; coordinated by S. Tordjman) for problems at school and psychoaffective (depression and/or anxiety disorders) and behavioral (hyperactivity and/or aggressive conduct) difficulties, with a control group who originally came to a private practice for a psychological assessment (carried out by C. Weismann-Arcache). Each group currently comprises around 50 children (i.e., approximately 100 participants in all), aged 6–12 years. It should be noted that just because a child has never been referred to a specialist does not mean that he or she has no psychological problems. This article is based on the general data we have collected from our samples
We therefore highlight the reciprocal incidences of high potential and depression, describing the characteristics of the underlying defensive organization in accordance with the psychodynamic model of child development: impulse—reaction formation (defense mechanisms)—character formation sublimation. Above and beyond the extreme or overdeveloped nature of certain aptitudes and certain components of these children's psychological organization, we underscore the heterogeneity of their mental functioning, in terms of excess and deficit, pressure and depression.
4. Clinical Features of Children with High Potential: Pressure and Depression
As we do not see high intellectual potential as a distinct nosographic entity, we selected our participants on the basis of a single criterion and did not prejudge the homogeneity of our sample. This criterion was psychometric and quantitative, namely an IQ above 130, even though researchers have started to make a distinction between academic and nonacademic (e.g., creative) high potential [2, 19]. Every child initially underwent an in-depth psychological investigation designed to objectivize high intellectual (and creative) potential and assess overall mental functioning, by means of clinical interviews, the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), Piagetian tests, projective tests (Children's Apperception Test (CAT) or Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) and Rorschach, drawings (child's family, Rey-Osterrieth Complex Figure Test, Dame de Fay), and a psycho-affective assessment (depression, self-esteem, and anxiety questionnaires). In addition, a direct observation of the child completed by a parental interview was conducted by two child psychiatrists. The presence of major depressive disorder according to DSM-IV-TR criteria was found in 65% of the 100 children with high intellectual potential. It is noteworthy that this high frequency of major depressive disorder was observed in the children with high intellectual potential who came to the CNAHP for psychoaffective problems, but also in the children with high intellectual potential who came to private practice for psychological assessments to skip a grade. This finding underlines the importance to study the relationships between depression and high intellectual potential. However, this high frequency of major depressive disorder concerns only children with high potential who came for professional advice, and therefore this result should not be extended to all the children with high potential.
By focusing on “anachronisms” as the vectors of pathology and sublimation, we have so far been able to identify several shared characteristics, with a variability ranging from the normal to the pathological :
intense questioning about origins and finitude versus emptiness, lack, and castration, which continues to nourish relatively unrepressed infantile sexual theories for a considerable length of time, and a particular relationship with time, colored by existential anxiety about separation, loss, and death;
a counterphobic use of thought and language in an attempt to shore up a libidinal impulse in search of self-soothing or a protective shield to contain fears of loss. Object relations are traumatic in nature, characterized by excess/lack in a way that is reminiscent of the game of hide and seek in which the child burns if he or she gets close to the desired object and freezes if he or she moves away from it;
avoidance/refusal of models in all fields, in an illusory attempt to elude dependency on reality and objects. These children favor their own mental representations, which not only form the bedrock of their identity and identification, with all its attendant vagaries, but also constitute one of the conditions for creativity, if not genius. At the clinical level, the rejection of models may manifest itself in poor writing and copying skills, noncompliance with school rules, and a reluctance to draw or to play symbolic games. Trial and error is not permitted, as it represents the gap between the model to be attained—the ideal—and the limitations of the child's ego.
Ours is a heterogeneous population covering the whole range of psychopathological classifications, from variations of normality to the most severe disorders. This same transnosographic “cross-border” dimension of high potential can be found in siblings containing several individuals with overdeveloped intelligence, as the latter may present with a variety of disorders, including what are currently labeled dyspraxia, ADHD, and high-functioning autism. Our experience shows also that most of the requests for consultations we receive from families with high potential children concern separation difficulties, ranging from very slight to extremely severe. The symptoms presented are recurrent “boredom,” “loneliness,” “lack of self-confidence” and “sleep disturbances.” Separation difficulties, notably lack of self-confidence, generally manifest themselves at nursery school entry, when forced socialization and classroom learning bring to light a lack of wellbeing which the child's family had either not picked up on or had assumed to be a token of eccentricity or exception, as high potential can easily mask underlying depressive features with its precocious logic and rationalization .