As October has turned into November, midterms have come and gone, and deadlines and finals are encroaching, many college students are feeling the effects of burnout. What may appear as laziness and procrastination to onlookers is often actually the result of moderate to severe mental health and illness issues. My own experience with burnout has its roots in my childhood as a student on a gifted track with undiagnosed ADHD. By sharing my experience, I hope to shed some light on burnout and mental health in college, as well as let others like me know that they’re not alone.
The Davidson Institute offers some insight into the feeling of burnout that many “gifted children” experience, particularly later on in their education. Gifted kid burnout can manifest as brain fog, detachment, procrastination, loss of motivation, and difficulty completing basic tasks and self-care. The Davidson Institute suggests that because of the way their brains are uniquely wired, gifted children often experience burnout more intensely than other students. So, instances of burnout in gifted children, or former gifted children, can be both severe and long-lasting.
Another factor that can come into play with burnout is an underlying disability, disorder, or impairment that affects learning. This can be particularly challenging when a student is undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, as the problem can go undetected or not properly treated. In my case, I was diagnosed with ADHD during the summer of 2022, an event which prompted me to reflect on my educational experience. The National Association for Gifted Children uses the term “twice-exceptional students”, or more simply, “2e students”, to refer to students who are identified in school as both gifted and as having one or more disabilities. For these students, two major problems exist: often, 2e students may go undiagnosed or go without special education resources they may benefit from; additionally, many 2e students are limited by those in charge of their education and are not given the opportunity to excel in areas they otherwise would without a diagnosis. I have found myself in the first of these two categories, but 2e students in both categories may experience burnout in school or college due to their respective limitations earlier in life.
A large percentage of 2e students who, like me, went undiagnosed until much later in life than their other 2e peers, are girls and women with ADHD. Girls with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are much less likely to be diagnosed in school than boys, because most boys present predominantly hyperactive symptoms, while girls present more often as inattentive, the type less likely to be detected. Girls and women with ADHD inattentive type are typically very good at masking their symptoms and tendencies so that they don’t stand out socially or in the classroom. Students who aren’t identified as “problem children” by teachers, those who get good grades and are not disruptive, very rarely get the correct diagnosis and assistance that they need to succeed in the long term. The CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) Organization describes the stress that young girls with undiagnosed ADHD in particular face in school: “No one knows the anxiety that overcomes them as they procrastinate over long-term assignments and then, at the last minute, turn in an assignment that puts them near the top of the class”. If these children or college students seek out help for their unexplained anxiety, procrastination habits, or other symptoms of ADHD, they are often misdiagnosed. Like so many others, I was treated for anxiety and depression for years before I discovered the hidden cause of most of my mental health issues.
So, what does all this mean? Regardless of any of the above categories (or others not discussed) that you may fall into, your experience of burnout is valid. You don’t need a diagnosis to justify taking time away to work on your mental health. Going to college and learning to be independent is no easy feat, particularly during the continuing global pandemic. Remember to take a step back, take a deep breath, and take care of yourself as we finish out the semester – we’ve got this :)
Blustain, Rachel. The Hechinger Report, “Twice Exceptional, Doubly Disadvantaged? How Schools Struggle to Serve Gifted Students with Disabilities,” 6 May 2019, https://hechingerreport.org/twice-exceptional-doubly-disadvantaged-how-schools-struggle-to-serve-gifted-students-with-disabilities/.
CHADD, “Bias About ADHD Leaves Many Women with a Late Diagnosis,” 2 March 2022, https://chadd.org/adhd-weekly/bias-about-adhd-leaves-many-women-with-a-late-diagnosis/#:~:text=Women%20and%20ADHD,%E2%80%9CADHD%20is%20tricky.
Davidson Institute, “Burnout in Gifted Children,” 26 August 2021, https://www.davidsongifted.org/gifted-blog/burnout-in-gifted-children/.
Davidson Institute, “Gifted, ADHD, or Both?,” 4 November 2021, https://www.davidsongifted.org/gifted-blog/gifted-adhd-or-both/.
NAGC, “Twice-Exceptional Students,” https://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources-parents/twice-exceptional-students.