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Cross' book explores suicide among the gifted

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When a school experiences the suicide of one of its students, it’s a tragedy. When a school for gifted students experiences three suicides within one year, it becomes the subject of scrutiny and political debate.

It was in the aftermath of that very situation at an Indiana school nearly 20 years ago that Tracy L. Cross began the work that would become his life’s calling: researching suicide among the gifted. Now, after two decades of work in the barely explored field, Cross is sharing his findings in a new book, Suicide Among Gifted Children and Adolescents: Understanding the Suicidal Mind. The book provides a new model developed by Cross for understanding suicidal behavior among the gifted and aims to help school administrators, teachers, parents and peers prevent further loss of life.

“I’m very proud and optimistic about this little book,” said Cross, Jody and Layton Smith Professor of Psychology and Gifted Education and executive director of the Center for Gifted Education. “Although it isn’t the most impressive academic tome I’ve ever been associated with, what can be more important than keeping kids alive?”

Prevalence myths

When people think about the prevalence of suicide among the gifted, they often make one of two assumptions, said Cross. One is that the rate is higher among the gifted because they are assumed to be vulnerable or emotionally fragile.

“The evidence about that is just the opposite,” said Cross. “Since about 1915, we’ve had considerable research showing that gifted students as a group tend to be healthier physically and mentally and actually even more socially popular than the general population.”

The other assumption is that gifted students are less at risk for suicide because of their intelligence, resilience or capacity to think, said Cross.

Unfortunately, the real prevalence rate of suicide among the gifted is impossible to determine because the government and other organizations do not track whether a person was gifted or not at the time of his or her death. Additionally, the definition of giftedness varies, and a student can be regarded as such in one school district and as not in the next, said Cross.

What researchers do know is that, among the general population, the highest prevalence rate is actually among the elderly, with about 17 suicides among every 100,000 people in that group. For people ages 15-24, the rate is between currently between eight and 10. The number for children under the age of 14 is rather low, but suicides in that age range do occur, sometimes in children as young at 7 years old, said Cross.

Although the statistics for gifted students are not currently available, Cross fears that, while the rate of attempts may be about the same, the number of completions may be much higher among the gifted. Though he does not have the findings to support that assumption yet, Cross notes that “if they’re completing more efficiently, they can actually be dying at a much higher prevalence rate.”

The suicidal mind

In creating his model for understanding the suicidal mind of gifted students, Cross started with established research on suicide among the general population, which has identified several correlates, or factors associated with suicidal behavior. These include depression (the top correlate), access to lethal means, loss of a significant relationship, alcohol and drug use and a family history of suicide.

By conducting “psychological autopsies” -- research into how a person thought and felt leading up to his or her suicide -- Cross found that these same correlates apply to the gifted.

“And that’s a good thing, that means we can identify and follow them and try to prevent it by knowing what’s true for the general population,” said Cross.

However, gifted students also face unique societal and cultural obstacles, Cross added. For instance, within their own families, they can encounter ridicule, misunderstanding or mixed messages about their giftedness. At school, too, they can be singled out and teased by peers. Many try to hide their talents in an effort to blend in while others attempt to find ways to completely lose the gifted label by acting in an opposite manner.

“When they’re in a situation where they’re dealing with the variables I mentioned before and you add some of these things to it, you can image how hard it gets,” said Cross.

In addition, some of the variables that people think protect gifted students from suicidal behavior can actually work against them. For instance, some gifted children experience extreme emotional angst from an early age because they are able to see some of the world’s worst aspects.

“Well, when you get a little bit older you still have that quality, now factor it into everything else,” said Cross. “Sometimes the world is not a very positive place to be, and you add up all these ways by society that you are being told you are not desired, you are not acceptable, and now add on depression or a relationship break, bullying and other things, they’re going to be at risk for suicide.”

All of these things combined can lead a student to a place of “psychache,” where they are in such great psychological pain that they can only see one way out.

“Psychache in combination with hopelessness is when an actual attempt is made,” said Cross. “And this is what is so beguiling about our field. We can say after the fact that all of these things lined up to predict it but we can’t predict it before it happens very well.”

Hope for prevention

However, prevention is still possible, said Cross.

“People like to think that that if a person’s suicidal, they will always find a way, but that’s not what research supports,” he said. “You buy them time, you help them get over one hurdle, you help build some coping skills -- the longer they’re around, the more opportunities there are.”

Schools are uniquely situated to help with that, said Cross.

“Schools are probably our single best institution for preventing suicide because we have so many different eyes there -- we have the friendship base, we have the colleagues/peers base, the teachers, counselors, administrators, parents -- and by virtue of all those different perspectives, you tend to know who’s feeling distressed,” said Cross.

And that’s exactly what Cross wants parents, teachers and administrators to look for: signs of distress. From there, they can bring the child to the school counselor, who has more training and can further evaluate the situation and make appropriate referrals.

Other students can also be key to identifying distressed friends or classmates. However, they often hesitate, thinking that they may be “ratting them out” and even believing that “it’s better to have a dead friend than a live enemy,” said Cross.

“Our society is so scared of this concept of suicide,” said Cross. “We’ve been taught that if we bring it up, it might heighten the chances that it might occur. There’s no truth to that, there’s no research on that. That’s just kind of an old wives’ tale.”

Cross hopes that his book can address myths like that and empower schools to intervene.

“There’s a certain degree of changing concepts and getting everyone on board to build a community of trust and compassion,” he said. “These aren’t hokey words; they’re very much about kindness in operation. Suicide is one of those things that we can do something about. We already have, to some extent.”

Cross’ work with teachers and parents has made him optimistic, he said.

 “This is something we can do. This is something we can turn around.”