How Giftedness Impacts Teen Mental Health

By: Jenny Sherman

What is Giftedness?

The word “gifted” is defined as “having exceptional talent or natural ability.

An adolescent might be a gifted athlete, musician, or artist. Most often when we speak of being gifted from an educational perspective, we are describing those who have intellectual gifts and naturally excel academically. Many times young people who possess such gifts are subject to depression, anxiety, or other emotional health concerns. For this reason, Paradigm has created a gifted treatment program specifically designed to meet the needs of such youth.

The Impact of Giftedness on Mental Health

Clinicians have long debated the impact of giftedness on psychological well-being. There is evidence to support two contrasting views:

  1. that giftedness enhances resiliency in individuals
  2. that giftedness increases vulnerability

There is empirical and theoretical evidence to support both views.

According to Cole Rucker, CEO, and Co-Founder of Paradigm, “There is good reason to believe that both positions are true. Giftedness offers young people strengths that contribute to their resilience, while making them more vulnerable in other areas of their lives, such as their emotional health. It seems likely that most clinicians can agree that giftedness influences the psychological well-being of individuals. Any disagreement is likely related to how it does so.” In addition, “There is a great deal of research to suggest that the psychological outcomes for gifted adolescents are positive or negative based on at least three factors that interact synergistically: the type of giftedness, the educational fit, and a young person’s individual characteristics,’ Rucker explains. Paradigm’s program for gifted youth works to help young people identify types of giftedness, and ensure educational fit, further helping youth develop the skills necessary to thrive based on their individual characteristics. It’s an approach that is getting dramatic results.

How A Gifted Teen Program is Helpful

According to Paradigm’s Director of Education, Jerri Anna Phenix, young people and their families have had a very positive reaction to Paradigm’s program for Gifted Youth. “Many residents come to us from highly competitive private and public schools,” Phenix explains. Most are on track to enroll in the very best Universities, many Ivy League. The last thing that families want to do is sacrifice academic careers when coming into treatment for emotional health issues.” Phenix goes on to say, “Not getting help with those concerns impacts a student’s academics, however. This is the Catch 22 that many gifted youths have historically faced. Thanks to Paradigm, this is no longer the case.”

“It is specifically for this reason that we have designed our gifted teen program the way that we have. We want to ensure that we do not disrupt academic careers or anything else in the life of a youth that is working,” Phenix adds. With the permission of families, the on-site classroom teachers work with each student’s home school to get assignments, allowing youth to stay current, or even get ahead in their studies. Tutors from Pepperdine and UCLA are on hand to provide teens with one-on-one instruction as needed, and teachers can proctor exams, midterms, and finals. This allows students to re-integrate post treatment with one less stressor.”

Regarding school participation, Paradigm Classroom teacher Siana Walker has her own take. We have student teachers from the best schools in this country and abroad, come to us, and they are almost always enthusiastic about doing whatever it takes to get a young person emotionally healthy and current in their studies,” she explains. “Schools welcome participation in Paradigm as a solution for struggling gifted students.” Lastly, Walker says, it can be challenging because the academic needs of youth vary so dramatically. We see students who are enrolled in classes ranging from Honors Mandarin Chinese to AP Latin and Nuclear Science studies. We are lucky to have a wealth of resources from local universities, who provide us with specialized tutors.”

While there are specific classroom hours built into the program, if teens require more time for their studies, schedules are altered to accommodate their needs. According to the Director of Paradigm’s Meadows Facility, Cecilia Muniz, the goal is to help young people find balance. We want them to give their mental health priority while they are here. That doesn’t mean that they have to sacrifice all that they have worked so hard for. Anxieties that come up around school performance provide us with important therapeutic opportunities. We can look at pressures around school performance, the effect of other people’s expectations, and emerging identities that are coupled with school performance—these are all things that we address.”

Seeking Treatment

Academics themselves are not the only sources of stress directly related to seeking treatment. Many gifted youths have a difficult time accepting help with their emotional health. Rucker explains, “These brilliant young people are often times accustomed to being able to fix things themselves. When they can’t, they feel a sense of failure and guilt around that.” He goes on to say, “They also frequently struggle with what to share or not share with friends, school officials or other members of the community around going away to treatment.” Jerri Anna Phenix adds, “This is a personal decision that every family must make for themselves. We have seen a shift toward openness over the years as the world becomes more sophisticated around these issues. In fact, we have had youth that was so impacted by their treatment experience that they wrote about it as part of their college applications.”

While there is little doubt that the stigma of seeking treatment for mental health issues has diminished, there remains progress to be made. We would like to see the treatment community at large put more energy into meeting the needs of the gifted,” Rucker expresses. “We are seeing such amazing outcomes. We would like to see that become the norm rather than the exception.”

Related Articles

The Mental Health Challenges of Gifted Teens

Existential Teen Depression in Gifted Teens

Gifted Teens: What Parents Can Do To Help

Working with Gifted Teens