Are Smart Children More Prone to Depression as Adults?

Are Smart Children More Prone to Depression as Adults?


When I was younger, I was one of the smart kids. You can be smart in different ways, but I’m talking about the “nerdy” kind of smart. The kind of smart which gets you good grades and makes you a favourite amongst the teachers. Being that kind of smart is simultaneously a gift and a curse. Lonely as it could be, at the time, I enjoyed having the bragging rights of doing well and having evidence to show for it. If I’m being honest, the older I’ve got, the more I’ve begun to feel like it’s a curse.

There are flaws to being smart.

I was proud of being smart, but it came at a cost. When you’re a child, it’s not cool to be smart. People either want to be your friend so they can borrow your brain, or they don’t want to know you at all. If you’re lucky, you do find a few friends along the way but, for the most part, you are an outcast. Teachers love you, but that’s about it.

You would rather have your head stuck in a book than go chasing other children around the playground. While others avoided their homework, you would make sure it was done and done well. Being the smart kid was a central part of who you were, even if it didn’t make you popular.

But it’s not just about popularity.

When you’re a smart kid, there’s a lot of pressure and expectation placed on you – by yourself, by your teachers and sometimes by your parents (although, thankfully, not in my case.) If you don’t achieve a high grade, it is seen, and often expressed, as disappointing. Yet, everyone else in your class is getting Bs and Cs, so why isn’t it acceptable that you did? Everyone was expecting you to get an A, that’s why. In some cases, people may voice their concerns and ask you what was going on. Other times, they seem to frown upon you for missing the mark that time.

Everything is fine as long as you are getting the grades, but then when you’re not, there’s confusion. No one ever seems to ask why, though. They just think you didn’t try as hard as you normally do.

Nobody was harder on me than I was on myself. If I didn’t achieve the grade I was striving for, I would view myself as a failure. As I mentioned earlier, being smart was a central part of who I was. When that was taken away from me, I felt like I had nothing to offer because so much emphasis had been placed on the value of being smart.


When you do well and achieve the expected results, people sing your praises. You get compliments and remarks on how well you are doing. Sometimes, you get awards. You believe that there must be a reason for that. If everyone is encouraging you to achieve good grades, they must be worth it in the long run. Why else would people become so invested in it? It must matter. So, you go through the schooling system with the belief that if you pass your exams, you’ll do well. All the hours spent studying and working your backside off will be worth it.


…vs reality.

Sure, sometimes those good grades put you in a better position for a certain job, but truthfully, no one really cares. When you get out into the “real world”, being smart doesn’t count for much. There’s certainly nobody there to cheer you on because you understood something complex, or wrote a well-worded letter. While the school system heavily emphasised the importance of getting good grades, it doesn’t stand up much afterwards. It becomes about the experience.

The rejection you experienced for being smart when you were younger is actually a reflection of how society really treats smart people. Some smart people are celebrated but, for most of us, it is irrelevant. They don’t suddenly welcome you in with open arms. If anything, they simply find new ways for you to prove yourself.

Plus, it turns out school doesn’t teach you much about the things you need to know. By the time I left college, I could write a killer essay but I had no idea about life. I felt completely lost. It’s not that I came out expecting to use my skills in exactly the same way, but I thought they must have practical implications somewhere.

So far, I haven’t seen much benefit from it. Perhaps I would have felt differently if I’d gone to university. We’ll never know.

What I do know is, here I am, at 27 years old, school life long behind me, and truthfully, some days, it feels like my efforts were a complete waste of time. Nobody has asked me about my GCSE results since I was 19 and the only time my A level results have been discussed is in casual conversation with friends.

So, what has this got to do with depression?

Being smart is tied to an expectation that you will achieve. All eyes are on you and pressure can be unbearable. I think, when you grow up with this, it becomes ingrained in your mind. You have to do your best with everything. There’s a hint of perfectionism thrown in there. For all that it might drive you, it can also break you.

The other thing about being smart is it means you take in information in a different way. I do believe less intelligent people are happier, because they don’t process information in the same way. Usually, they don’t understand it or its implications. They fall for the nonsense they read and are blissfully unaware of what lies beneath. Smart people have a need to know more; to gather information and analyse the situation. It’s not always a good thing. Some of the most intelligent people I know have had experience with mental health issues, and I do believe this is one of the reasons why.

Depression can happen to anyone. Yet, just as traumatic events and difficult life situations can make us more susceptible, I think the same can be said of intelligence. I wouldn’t wish my intelligence away, it is still something I am thankful for, and I don’t know if it had anything to do with my personal diagnosis, but I do think it is a contributing factor for others.

What can we do about it?

I don’t want this to read as “boohoo, I’m smart and nobody cares.” I’m glad we live in a world where people can achieve brilliant things, irrespective of their grades. There are drop-outs going around who are proving, time and time again, that exam results do not define you.

The thing I struggle with is why these examples haven’t made their way into the classroom, and why the education system still insists on putting enormous pressure on people. I truly believe it’s dangerous, and it doesn’t set them up well for life later on.

Celebrate the smart kids, but let them know they are so much more than that. Acknowledge all of their other qualities, too. They are kind, caring and funny. If, one day, they woke up, had forgotten everything and could no longer nail their exams, they would still be incredible people, capable of anything.

While we’re at it, let’s quit pretending grades matter. I know they assess progress along the way, which is fine, but the attitude that they matter beyond that needs to go. Oh, and, of course, maybe thrown in a lesson or two which teaches you something that will be helpful. All the academic knowledge is great, but it’s probably not going to help you get a mortgage.

Smart Children


  • Shevy du Toit 18th June 2018 at 11:07 am

    You have hit the nail on the head here lovely! I too was a ‘smart’ kid in primary school and into the later years of high school, I decided I just wasn’t go to be that way anymore. Suddenly, I found myself with more friends and less ridicule which in itself makes life a heck of a lot less stressful. ‘Smart’ kids are often the lonely outcasts because they are rarely understood, peers of their own age don’t understand their reasoning and friends are few and far between as the smart kids have nothing in common with their school mates. We know that now children who are bullied, outcasted and pressurised are prone to being depressing and later on over thinking their situation and / or diagnoses. Its cyclical and definitely not a fun cycle at that – I recently did that Mensa test which came back in the 2 percentile and my husband turned to me and said he was not surprised, that I had to be so intelligent that I couldn’t identify with others in my thought process in turn leading me into a dark place of smart solitary.


    • ruthinrevolt 18th June 2018 at 11:29 am

      Exactly. It’s a pattern I’ve noticed time and time again, even long before I had any experience with mental health illnesses myself. It does sadden me because being smart is a wonderful gift and it should be celebrated, but it’s so hard to do that when it feels like you get punished for it by everybody else.

  • Lisa McLachlan 18th June 2018 at 11:55 am

    Oh wow, Ruth, this had me swallowing hard. I was a smart kid at school and the pressure to always achieve top marks was immense. I had to enter competitions for music, drama, etc (all of which filled me with terror) and it culminated in my being pushed to study for Oxbridge after A levels. In the end I somehow found the courage to stand up and say, “NO, I DO NOT WANT THIS,” but the fallout was awful. My mother, in particular, was so disappointed. And then she started pushing me to apply to join the Diplomatic Service. I broke down in my interview and, thankfully, that was the end of that. I haven’t thought about this for years but your post has brought it all back. I made a vow that I’d never push Flora in the same way. She’s super smart but if she wants to go for something we’ll support her. Equally, if she doesn’t, we’ll support her. I never want her to feel the pressure I felt (she’s an only child, like me) because it’s just not fair. Don’t get me wrong, I adored my mother, I know she only ever wanted what she thought was the best life for me, but sometimes you just can’t live up to other people’s expectations and that is ABSOLUTELY OK. Sorry for the rambling comment, but thank you for (yet another) brilliant and thought-provoking post! xx

    Lisa |

    • ruthinrevolt 18th June 2018 at 12:09 pm

      I’m so sorry you had to go through that. Thankfully, I was very fortunate in that my parents were pretty much the only people who DIDN’T put any pressure on me (and trust me, Flora will thank you for this if you are doing the same!) However, teachers were terrible for it and, while they may have meant well, it felt like every time someone said “you’ve got a brighter future ahead of you”, another brick was added on my shoulders. Thank you for reading, commenting and sharing your experiences, lovely. x

  • Chloe 18th June 2018 at 2:59 pm

    This is incredibly well written, thoughtful and through provoking. As a fellow ‘smart person’ it was almost unnerving how much this resonated with me. As someone who is struggling through self suspected mental health issues I think you really touched on some incredibly important points. The pressure to always achieve is something that has always followed me around but not in a good way. I remember failing to be elected as a prefect in year 13 and as a 17-year-old girl crying, not because I was upset about getting the role but because I didn’t know how to tell people who expected so much of me. When I told my parents my dad came out with the phrase ‘that’s not like you to not get things you go for’ and while I love my dad incredibly and I know he meant nothing by it and has always been very supportive it’s crazy how much that stuck with and effected me! Thank you do much for writing a post I didn’t know I needed to read, and for being so accurate and honest for people who have not shared in the same experiences.

    Chloe x

    • ruthinrevolt 18th June 2018 at 3:41 pm

      I definitely understand – I imagine there were times when I cried over similar things, and for the same kind of reason. There are just such high expectations that, when you fail to meet them, it seems like the end of the world.

      Thank you for reading, commenting and sharing your experiences, as well as giving me such kind feedback! 🙂

      Wishing you all the best with your mental health, by the way. Please feel free to contact me if you ever need someone to talk to. x

  • Kayla Pettigrew 18th June 2018 at 6:30 pm

    Very well said, Ruth! So, I wasn’t the smart kid in school, but I was also an outcast so me and the smart kids were friends. In fact my best friend in grade school was so incredibly smart she would blow me away everyday by her knowledge. She reminds me of you though, she was her worst critic. Well, her mother too. I remember her mother being so hard on her if she got a B instead of an A. It was extremely sad, and I can see the frustration on my friend’s face from the failure. She has since gone to medical school and is on a wonderful path of Medicine. But I’ll never forget all the pain she suffered from being smart.

    • ruthinrevolt 18th June 2018 at 6:34 pm

      I think being smart and being hard on yourself often go hand in hand. I’m sorry your friend struggled with the pressure, too, but I’m glad to hear she is pursuing medicine – what a wonderful career! x

  • Kate 18th June 2018 at 7:55 pm

    This is a very spot on article, Ruth.

    Growing up I was one of those ‘gifted’ children (whatever the hell that means) and getting good grades was pretty much the only thing I did that would get my parents’ attention. Drove me absolutely bonkers and turned me into a monster of perfectionism and anxiety. When that system is ingrained in you from a very young age, it’s really hard to deconstruct. Working on it, though.

    Again, wonderful piece of writing
    Love xxx

    • ruthinrevolt 18th June 2018 at 8:02 pm

      You are right there – you spend so much time perfecting school work and grades and everything which goes with it and it takes such a long time to let that attitude loosen its grip! I suppose I can take comfort in the fact I’m not the only one, but I wish what is perceived to be such a good thing didn’t bring so much anguish. x

  • Bexa 18th June 2018 at 8:10 pm

    This is so well written Ruth! I’m not sure I would class myself as a smart kid but I definitely didn’t fit in with the popular kids. I was in the minority with the goths, punks and emos and we all struggled with our mental health to certain degrees. I’ve read studies that there is also a link between creativity and depression which fascinates me too. Great post lovely! 💖 xx

    Bexa |

    • ruthinrevolt 18th June 2018 at 8:14 pm

      I can believe that, too, given how many creative people I know (and even famous examples) who have mental health issues! I’m so intrigued and fascinated by it all. x

  • Sapphistication 21st June 2018 at 12:58 pm

    I firmly believe that the reason I suffered from depression quite so badly through my teens and especially at University was that my grades and my academic achievements were the measure I put on my worth. I must be worth something, look how many A*s I have! Then I got to university, and everybody had those grades – that’s how we all got onto the same course, after all. So it got worse, with me fighting even harder to define myself as intelligent and worthy amidst people who were just as smart as – if not smarter than – myself. I have since found other things to define myself, and to be proud of myself for, and while I still love to learn I decided that further University study probably wasn’t the best thing for me to do. If you grow up being told you’re ‘gifted’ and suddenly you’re fighting to be average, it’s a bit of a kick to your pride!

    • ruthinrevolt 21st June 2018 at 2:57 pm

      Absolutely. I think this is another reason I’m glad I didn’t go to university because I imagine my experience would have been similar to your own. I’m glad you’ve realised you are worth so much more than just your brilliant brain! 🙂

  • Jaleysa 23rd June 2018 at 5:07 am

    This is so true.. I think it depends a lot on the child’s personality too. My oldest daughter is this way already and she’s only 9.. she’s the perfectionist.. she excels at school and always gets good grades but as soon as she gets something wrong she’s upset and doubting everything.. I try to assure her that it’s ok to make mistakes because that’s how we learn.. nope she’s not having it.. I can only hope it gets better with age✨

    • ruthinrevolt 23rd June 2018 at 7:34 pm

      Awww, bless her! I hope it gets better for her, too. ❤️

  • Ashleigh Davis 12th July 2018 at 10:42 am

    Oh wow Ruth! This was so interesting to read. I can’t really relate because I was never the smart kid! I was always the kid who wanted to do well but wasn’t quite the A grade student. Although, I definitely agree with what you are saying. This was very fascinating to read so thank you for sharing this.

    • ruthinrevolt 12th July 2018 at 10:46 am

      Aww, thank you, Ashleigh! I really appreciate you taking the time to read it and comment. 🙂

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    About Me

    After being diagnosed with depression and anxiety then receiving treatment, I wanted to turn my situation into something constructive. So, with a lifelong passion for writing and a renewed sense of determination, I took a step out of my comfort zone and began putting all my efforts into creating a positive space online.

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