WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT PERFECTIONISM

By Alex Powell

Perfectionism may seem like a fringe issue – a few of us are self-proclaimed perfectionists, but that’s just a personality trait, right? Maybe not. Issues of perfectionism have had a dramatic impact on my studies, and I have seen it increasingly manifested amongst the students around me. It is a key indicator of many other issues which students face in the modern university environment.

The marketisation of education is a major factor in this growth of perfectionist tendencies among students. As tuition fees have risen, the idea that students must ensure they get ‘value for money’ out of their studies has grown in popularity and power.  Graduates must now compete for what is effectively a shrinking pool of jobs, as graduate numbers rise and rates of graduate employment fall. In the search for value and employability, students come under increasing pressure from themselves and those around them to achieve higher results. We tend to obsess over our work down to the most minor details, details which do not really reflect either our understanding of our subjects or our prowess as academics.

No doubt this pressure to perform and the associated perfectionism has something to do with the recent upsurge in students needing mental health support. Perfectionism can be linked to feelings of failure, inadequacy, and low self-worth. Simply put, if someone feels like they are not achieving their unrealistic expectations of their potential, if they feel that they are letting themselves and others down, their self-esteem takes a serious hit.

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This is something universities need to start seriously addressing. Raising awareness of the dangers of obsessive perfectionism, reminding students that nobody expects them to split the atom, is the best way to do this. Lecturers and other staff can reinforce the message that students are only human, that while marking and assessment may be rigorous, minor errors are not something to obsess over.  

This is just one of a number of pressures that the unique situation of being a student places us under. Many of us are living away from home for the first time. Our workday has no defined start or end, so we often feel like we should be constantly working. We are forced into massive debts, are left with too little to get by on, and as a result often live in pretty poor conditions. Mental health issues can affect anyone, but the pressures students face come in a distinctive and often dangerous mix.

Addressing perfectionism should, of course, form part of a wider programme targeted to address student mental health issues. But many universities are not equipping themselves to do this. Most have counselling services which students can access, but these services often have long waiting lists and limitations on the number of appointments each student may make. This is simply inadequate, and the situation is getting worse. As universities have implemented more marketised structures, many of the key support networks which students rely upon are being placed under threat. For example, the centralisation of administration takes away subject specific admin staff who may have previously served as a source of reassuring familiarity at stressful deadline times.

manifestations of perfectionism are a notable symptom of how existing mental health services at our institutions are failing us

These pressures, both academic and financial, are only going to get worse if plans to allow universities to charge higher yearly fees for two year programmes go ahead. Cramming three years of material into two while reducing time off will undoubtedly exacerbate mental health issues students face. And as universities are now so driven by profit motives, we can expect them to take this method up en masse as a way of getting more students and more money to pass through their halls in a shorter time.

The increasingly problematic manifestations of perfectionism are a notable symptom of how existing mental health services at our institutions are failing us. Universities need to step up to the plate and take some responsibility, both for better addressing student mental health issues and for saying no to structural changes that would exacerbate them. Sadly, we now live in a world where the student has become the customer, but like all customers we can demand a better service. If universities are to continue charging extortionate fees, which themselves function to cause depression and anxiety among students, the least they can do is invest those fees in properly addressing the unique mental health challenges students face.

Featured image via Meridian Peak Hypnosis

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