Many staff members at universities are likely to have come across the ‘Perfectionist Student’, or even, the ‘Procrastinating Student’: too fearful to start or submit work they do not believe is ‘good enough’ because it is not quite ‘perfect’. These students frequently struggle with high levels of worry and anxiety and are repeatedly failing to reach their potential because of their over-reliance on achieving their high standards and maladaptive coping strategies.
As a counsellor and mental health mentor with almost 10 years' experience supporting students in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), I have frequently come across the ‘perfectionist student’ and their excessive worry and procrastination that manifests in debilitating anxiety and often hampered academic achievement. It is disheartening to see students with such potential and ambition, struggle so much at university due to the pressures they are facing. My experience in supporting students is what drove my interest to conduct my PhD at Sheffield Hallam University, supervised by Professor Ann Macaskill and Dr David Reynolds; establishing the incidence of perfectionism, worry and anxiety in students, and effective interventions.
As many HEIs are aware, levels of mental illness among students at university in the UK are reportedly increasing. Although there is some debate regarding the true prevalence of mental illness in HEIs, there is more certainty regarding the rise of demand for mental health support and/or services at universities. Furthermore, levels of perfectionism appear to be increasing, as reported in Curran and Hill's (2017) meta-analysis, which raises concerns regarding the harm and psychological difficulties that might accompany an increase in perfectionism. Curran and Hill (2017) suggest the increase in perfectionism observed has the potential to explain some of the increase in the prevalence of psychopathology amongst young people in the Unites States, Canada and the UK. Smith et al.'s (2018) meta-analysis concluded that the pressure to be perfect is associated with increased risk of suicide and this may be very relevant to students. However, to date, there has been little data obtained across UK universities to identify if this is the case.
The National Student Perfectionism and Wellbeing Survey
Part of my PhD is a national survey being distributed across all universities in the UK to obtain new data on the incidence of multi-dimensional perfectionism amongst UK undergraduates, as well as other related factors including worry, anxiety, academic attainment, resilience and social media use. It is hoped that this data will identify the different factors associated with perfectionism, to help inform an intervention to support students. However, to analyse the data effectively, I am aiming to collect over 1000 responses from UK undergraduates.
How to get involved
It is likely that you have also experienced the high demand for mental health and well-being support at your own institution and are seeking to identify effective responses to this. Any support from other UK universities in disseminating this survey via e-mail to their undergraduate students would be greatly appreciated, as the more responses, the more accurately this will inform the intervention.
Further information, including the survey, can be found here:
However, if you would like a template e-mail to send to students, please do not hesitate to contact me (details below).
How this will help the wider sector
The data obtained from the survey will be used to help develop, implement and evaluate an effective intervention to help staff support students to manage their perfectionism, decrease symptoms of anxiety and increase confidence and resilience in their academic work. The aim is to create an intervention that is easily accessible and deliverable by staff in various roles, therefore not increasing workload to counselling and professional services, but rather decreasing it.
Lucy Nicola Cooper: Doctoral Researcher in Psychology, Sheffield Hallam University
For further information, please don't hesitate to contact me directly at L.N.Cooper@shu.ac.uk
Curran , T. & Hill, A. P. (2017) Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/bul0000138
Smith, M. M., Sherry, S. B., Chen, S., Saklofske, D. H., Mushquash, C., Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2018). The perniciousness of perfectionism: A meta‐analytic review of the perfectionism–suicide relationship. Journal of Personality. 86, 522-542. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12333
We are using this blog to help connect stakeholders across Higher Education interested in student mental health. If you have a project you are working on or an idea you'd like to develop, why not write your own blog post for us?