Does High IQ Increase the Risk of Depression and Mental Disorders?

Blame it on movies or books, but we have fallen into the habit of stereotyping. Popular culture portrays highly intelligent men and women as moody, secretive people who have so much going on in their minds that they are mentally always on edge. There is probably a point here because researchers are tinkering with the idea of a connection between high intelligence and depression and mental illness.

The super-brainy computer programmer, the scientist, or the nerdy professor is supposed to be a social misfit. He turns up at parties with unkempt hair and disheveled attire and spends the evening hunched up in a corner. The brilliant artist is a recluse with dark moods. When he is not creating masterpieces on canvas or the piano, he is cradling the bottle and spewing rage all around. Are these false preconceptions, or is there some truth to the stereotype?

The positive association between low IQ and depression

Some studies suggest a positive relationship between low intelligence levels and depression. A study based on the findings from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey in England concludes that people with low IQ are less happy than their more intelligent counterparts. During this study, subjects with an IQ level of 70–79, which is regarded as borderline intelligence deficiency, reported being less happy than the subjects with an IQ level of 120–129, which is considered extremely intelligent. The researchers used parameters like being in a positive mood most of the time, being satisfied with life, and feeling content with the quality of life to define and determine happiness levels in the subjects.

Low IQ is indicative of a deficiency or lack of cognitive ability that is required to carry out most education- and job-related tasks. People with low IQ levels tend to perform poorly in school and fail to land well-paying jobs that demand average to high levels of intelligence. In fact, intellectually deficient people often remain unemployed. Unemployed people may not earn enough to sustain themselves or their families. As a result, their relationships may suffer. Unemployment, low income, broken relationships, a life of want and frustration—people with low IQ can have many reasons to be depressed.

Yet some researchers also claim the reverse relationship to be true. According to them, depression lowers cognitive ability in a person, a phenomenon that manifests as low scores in IQ tests.

In an experiment conducted on a number of people with varying degrees of known depressive disorders and mentally healthy individuals, it was found that the former group generally performed poorly on intelligence tests. This study, and some others, explain this occurrence by citing neurological evidence. Depressed patients show decreased functioning ability in the frontal lobe of their brains. The frontal lobe is associated with higher mental functions and executive abilities.

Does this mean that highly intelligent people are generally happy and do not suffer from depression? The human mind is complex, and two and two do not always equate to four.

Researchers have reasons to believe that high IQ does not serve as protection against depression. Highly intelligent people may also develop depression and other mental disorders.

The positive association between high IQ and depression and other mental disorders

The fascination with genius and an obsession with finding a positive link between high intellectual potential and depression and other mental disorders dates back to the time of Hippocrates in 4th century B.C. Sigmund Freud explored the idea and modern-day researchers have expanded on it. In a study on children with IQ levels above 130—regarded as superior to very superior intelligence—researchers found that 65 percent of the subjects had major depressive disorder.

Several studies attempt to correlate the occurrence of depression in gifted individuals with the peculiar mental makeup that stems from their high levels of intelligence. People with high IQ tend to have fertile inner lives where they recreate the world to fit their dreams and preferences. They also have more intensified and enduring reactions to stimuli than their less-gifted counterparts. This means that when reality clashes with their perception of what is “real,” they feel at a loss and are unable to cope.

Highly intelligent people are also very sensitive and tend to be socially withdrawn. It may be because they are too busy with their own mental chatter or do not find someone with whom they can relate on an intellectual and emotional plane. Whatever may be their reason for feeling alienated from the world at large, people with high IQ lack support systems or creative outlets to help them cope with their blues.

The unique mental and behavioral characteristics of highly gifted and creative individuals may also explain the origin of the popular perception that geniuses are “mad”. A study in Sweden has found that people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are more likely to work in creative jobs that require high levels of cognitive and artistic intelligence than individuals who do not suffer from these mental disorders.

And would you believe that researchers link scoring straight A grades in school to a fourfold increase in the chances of developing bipolar disorder in adulthood? According to the authors of another study, students who excel in linguistics, music, and arithmetic reasoning have a greater likelihood of developing bipolar disorder. Excellence in these disciplines requires a person to reach a state of high alertness where they can spot underlying patterns and connect dots in innovative ways. These mental characteristics also make people more prone to experiencing strong emotions, a classic symptom of bipolar disorder, than those who are not similarly attuned.

The jury is still out regarding a positive relationship between high IQ and a greater risk of developing depression and mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Whether there is a positive link or not, all the research in this area should serve to sensitize people to the reality that geniuses are not freaks of nature—they just cannot help being the way they are.


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Image via Ruslan Grumble / Shutterstock.

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing (Scientific Biomedical Consulting Services).
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