Perfectionism takes toll on college students, study shows

High levels of perfectionism are related to depression, anxiety and stress. Here's what faculty, counselors and others in higher ed need to know and do.

College students who have high levels of perfectionism also have significantly higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress, according to a study from two researchers at Texas State University.

The first-of-its-kind study—conducted by Amitai Abramovitch, an assistant psychology professor at the university, and Anthony Robinson, who recently graduated with a master’s degree from the university’s psychological research program—compared students who have very high and very low levels of perfectionism. 

The research showed that while the two groups did not differ significantly in cognitive function or in their GPAs, the group of students who had high levels of perfectionism also exhibited significantly higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress than the students with low levels of perfectionism. 

What faculty and counselors can do

Faculty at colleges and universities need to be educated about what perfectionism is and the psychological toll it can take on students, Abramovitch says. Some of the students who had high levels of perfectionism in the study also met the criteria for having obsessive-compulsive disorders. Often students are too obsessed with their grades, which results in them putting too much pressure on themselves. 

“Before every exam I administer, I tell my students, ‘This is just a grade. It says nothing about who you are as people, it says nothing about your quality, it says nothing about your future. It’s a point in time,'” Abramovitch explains.

Counseling centers on campuses are often swamped—not to mention closed right now because of the pandemic. So it’s more crucial than ever that there are alternatives available to alleviate help students, Abramovitch said. 

Other options include screenings that can be administered online. Such assessments can show students where they stand in terms of being perfectionists as well as offer “low-intensity” interventions such as apps with non-interactive platforms that essentially act as self-help tools, Abramovitch says.

Also read: Student self-care on the syllabus

Robinson, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in clinical psychology at Louisiana State University, says there is more pressure on students than ever with more people entering the workforce, increased demand for more skills and highly-competitive degree programs. 

And now, with COVID-19 and its impact on every industry, 2020 graduates will especially be struggling to launch their careers.

 “What we should be doing is encouraging them to be achievement striving and just generally striving to do well, and having high standards for themselves,” Robinson says. “But also, with the understanding of, ‘if I don’t meet these standards, that doesn’t say anything about me, and I shouldn’t be interpreting my self-worth based on whether or not I get an ‘A.’”

Read more about the research, which was published in the journal Behavior Therapy.

Richard Conn is a Florida-based writer. 


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