Push to perfection is a suicide risk factor, Western University researcher says

Martin Smith, PhD candidate in Psychology at Western University

People who believe they must be perfect – and who ultimately can’t deal with the thought of being flawed – are at much greater risk of suicidal thoughts and suicide, says a recent paper co-authored by a Western University researcher.

The role of perfectionism in suicide has until now been under-recognized and misunderstood in 50 years of case histories, theoretical accounts and empirical research into suicide factors, says the paper “The Perniciousness of Perfectionism,” recently published in Journal of Personality.

Lead investigator Martin Smith, a Western University doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology, said the team drew together 45 studies and 54 samples representing almost 12,000 participants in the most comprehensive analysis to date of the perfectionism-suicide link.

“We tend to think of perfectionism as potentially a good thing. We’re told, ‘Aim high, reach for the stars,’” Martin said. “But for some people, even excellence isn’t good enough, and that’s where they run into issues. Insisting on flawlessness is simply not mentally healthy, adaptive or advisable.”

The study notes that 10 to 20 million people attempt suicide each year and nearly one million people die by suicide. And while suicide rarely has one single cause, perfectionism must now be added to the list of potential contributing concerns, he said.

“We can’t at this point say perfectionism is a cause of suicide. But we can say the two correlate closely,” he said. “The drive to be perfect — whether it’s because of internal or external pressure to succeed without ever failing —can be an unbearable and untenable strain.”

People intent on perfection often fly below professionals’ radar because seeking help is an admission they are imperfect, he said.

The researchers said the study can help clinicians be more aware of an array of suicidal markers and develop preventive measures.

“Our findings join a wider literature suggesting that, when people experience their social world as pressure-filled, judgmental, and hyper-critical, they think about and/or engage in various potential means of escape (e.g., alcohol misuse and binge eating), including suicide,” the study says.


Note to media: We would request that, where possible, media citing this story make note of urgent and emergency mental-health resources in their area. In the London (Ont.), area, these resources include the Canadian Mental Health Association Crisis Centre at 1-866-933-2023 and on webchat at www.reachout247.ca; the Bell Let’s Talk Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 and on webchat at www.kidshelpphone.ca; and 911 and emergency departments of area hospitals. At Western University, additional supports for students can be found through Student Health Services at 519-661-3030 and https://uwo.ca/health/mental_wellbeing/crisis.html .


MEDIA CONTACT: Debora Van Brenk, Media Relations Officer, Western University, 519-661-2111 x85165, or on mobile at 519-318-0657 and deb.vanbrenk@uwo.ca


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