Dominique is a national student health expert, and was previously the Director of the University of Bristol Students’ Health Service for 7 years (2010-2017). In 2017 she was part of the working group that produced the landmark report on the state of the nation’s student wellbeing and the Universities UK framework for universities, #stepchange Mental Health in Higher Education.
‘Excellence’ is an integral part of university marketing and strategy. In fact, you would be hard pushed to find a UK university that did not allude to its attributes or achievements without also referring to ‘excellence’. It is of course entirely understandable that academic institutions should wish to highlight their drive, ambition and universal high standards, but it is worth reflecting on the fact that these stratospheric aspirations, to be excellent in all their endeavours, heaps pressure on the members of the university, both staff and students. These aspirations in turn fuel the rising levels of perfectionism in students creating a potential mental health time bomb.
Recent research has clearly demonstrated a shift towards higher levels of perfectionism in students in the UK, US and Canada over the last 3 decades. Teachers are also starting to tell us that they are seeing this trend extend into the classroom.
What is perfectionism?
Nobody likes to make mistakes. It’s human nature to find them awkward, embarrassing or upsetting. Perfectionism takes this unsettling reaction to the next level. Perfectionism can be defined by an abnormal or overreaction to mistakes, a genuine fear of failure that is intolerable, catastrophising and driving the person to work harder and harder, in an attempt to avoid or correct potential mistakes. To be considered ‘clinical’ perfectionism, it has to have a negative impact on your day to day life. This exhausting need to attain perfection, with the accompanying guilt and self-criticism if you don’t, is partly what is behind the recent increase in mental health issues occurring in our young population.
Are perfection and mental health issues linked?
Setting oneself high standards should be a part of academic life, of course, but an ability to learn from mistakes and bounce back from these is also key to success (and human survival!). Trying to attain high standards should not come at the cost of relationships, social connections and physical health (for example from lack of sleep). When such high standards feel out of reach one can become anxious, tearful, angry or irritable. This may spiral towards depression, or, in an attempt to regain control over part of one’s life, a person may develop eating disorder symptoms, micromanaging their calorie intake or exercise, as that, at least, remains in their control.
It is normal to want to protect ourselves from embarrassment or discomfort. Our brains are wired to avoid distress, but if we are to challenge this significant generational rise in damaging levels of perfectionist behaviour, and therefore reduce its negative impact on young people’s wellbeing, we need to intervene at a young age. Building confidence and self-esteem, and learning from mistakes will be key skills for children to discover at school, reducing the drive to be perfect or self-criticise, without reducing ambition.
Understanding the difference between healthy high standards and perfectionism will benefit young people at a time when society is increasingly competitive and target focussed. If we fail as a society to address the perfectionism, or the factors driving and reinforcing it, such as excessive parental criticism or control, or constant comparison with others, then we will fail our younger generation. They might potentially take cognitive enhancing (‘smart’) drugs in an effort to keep up, and mental health issues will continue to rise. Society will be the poorer for it, creatively, economically and socially.
Be YOUR best, not THE best!
A good starting point for universities might be to reassess the emphasis on ‘excellence’ in all things and ensure that the message is framed better and more realistically for a sustainable and fulfilling work-life balance for their students (and staff!). It may be more realistic and productive for students to focus on being the best they can be in one or two areas of their lives, without stressing that they have to be world class at everything. If academic staff and tutors in particular can model good behaviour around this issue, then the students will learn healthy and resilient strategies, which they will in the future model in turn.
Providing context, reliable information, skills and advice to students and young people so that they can recognise unhealthy perfectionist traits, and know what steps to take, along with trustworthy mental health knowledge is a good start in our pursuit of greater wellbeing for all students.
Dr Dominique Thompson is the Lead Advisor for Epigeum’s Being Well, Living Well collaboration. This project will produce an interactive online toolkit to boost student wellbeing with practical skills and coping strategies to embed positive behaviours. Find out how your institution can get involved here.