Bright Star — Black Sky: A Phenomenological Study of Depression.

By P. Susan Jackson.

Full Title: Bright Star — Black Sky: A Phenomenological Study of Depression as a Window Into the Psyche of the Gifted Adolescent.

“Few maladies touch so many aspects of the self as depression. Informed discussions of this ancient and pervasive human affliction must range freely from the faint rattlings of molecules in the brain, through the fleeting thoughts and emotions that compromise mind, to the unfathomable mysteries of spirit-the subtle essence of consciousness itself” (Nelson, J.E. and A. Nelson, 1996)

This article presents the results of a comprehensive study of the depressive experience of the gifted adolescent. One out of ten high school students experiences some form of severe depression during the high school years (McKracken, 1992). Depression has been causally related to about 60% of suicides (Stoudemire, Frank, Hedemark, Kamlet, & Blazer, 1986).

The higher incidence of depressive experience for gifted teens has been documented (Brown, 1993; Hayes and Sloat, 1990; Silverman, 1993). While not extensive there seems to be a higher incidence of suicidal tendencies in gifted adolescents than in the average population (see Hayes and Sloat, 1989). In a recent preliminary study, Silverman (1993) suggested that gifted adolescents are more at risk for suicide than are their classmates. Other studies reveal a high incidence of high achievers in the population of those who commit suicide in high school. (Delisle, 1986, 1990; Farrell, 1989; Hayes and Sloat; Kerr, 1991; Leroux, 1986).

The suggested rationale for the higher incidence of the depressive experience and suicidal behaviors is diverse and as complex as the individuals in this population. Brown (1993) presents gifted perception as “often holistic, incorporating spiritual, kinesthetic, and emotional, as well as cognitive components of a problem.” (p.185). The gifted adolescent prefers complexity, is often intense and has the capacity to consider many contradictory ideas at one time. Lacking an appropriate audience, these complex emotional and intellectual constructs often remain internalized resulting in the gifted adolescent being at risk for isolation and despair. The need for a more informed understanding and therapeutic response to this prevalent and often life threatening affliction is inarguable.

The initial intent of this study was to document the scope and nature of the depressive experience with the aim of providing recommendations for therapeutic response. The material provided by the gifted adolescents themselves, however, revealed a more comprehensive scope with responses that address the etiology of the depressive experience for this group. James Hillman suggests that:

The wound and the eye are one and the same. From the psyche’s viewpoint, pathology and insight are not opposites – as if we hurt because we have no insight and when we gain insight we shall no longer hurt. No. Pathologizing is itself a way of seeing; the eye of the complex gives the peculiar twist called “psychological insight” (Hillman, 1975).

Thus it was that this study of depression proved to be a powerful lens into the complex workings of the gifted adolescent psyche. Throughout the interviews the gifted adolescent’s propensity for self-reflection and self-analysis was evidenced. This self-reflective capacity was a pivotal determinant in data collection resulting in material that was extraordinarily rich and dense.

The phenomenological methodology employed allowed the subjects (referred to as co-researchers or CRs) to simply tell their story. No attempt was made to mold or shape the CR’s experience to fit a pre-determined perception or theoretical perspective. In this value free context, the gifted adolescent was free to muse, recall and reflect; each CR offered a complex and gripping portrayal of an often crippling and always distressing psychological state.

Collectively, their testimony provided the researcher with an idea about the guts of the depressive state for the gifted adolescent and, importantly, with a glimpse into the underlying, common psychic structure which gives rise to the depressive experience. This resultant structure provides a comprehensive perspective on the attitudes, feelings, perceptions and evaluations that gifted adolescents hold about themselves. It profiles the self of the gifted adolescent: “the per-son’s total subjective environment;…the distinctive center of experience and significance”. (Hamachek, 1971). Importantly this study suggests that transcendence of the depressive experience moves the gifted adolescent from an undifferentiated to an increasingly more authentic self.


Definition of Terms The operational definition of giftedness used in this study was that of the Columbus group:

Giftedness is assynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally. (The Columbus Group, 1991)*

*The Columbus Group includes international experts and parents of gifted children. This definition is part of the unpublished transcript of their meeting in July of 1991.

The depressive state describes a syndrome or cluster of disorders wherein the mood state is typified by a profound mood of sadness, sense of inadequacy, a feeling of despondency, a decrease in activity and reactivity, and an emotional state marked by pessimism, despair and related symptoms.