Western co-authored study suggests correlation between perfectionism and suicide risk

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A recent scientific paper co-authored by several researchers from Western University suggests people intent on perfection, be it from internal or external pressure to be perfect, may be at greater risk of suicidal thoughts and suicide.

The paper, The Perniciousness of Perfectionism, published last month in Journal of Personality, looked at 45 different studies and 54 samples representing about 11,750 participants.

Using the studies, researchers meta-analyzed the perfectionism-suicide relationship, testing whether self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed perfectionism predicted increased suicide ideation, the paper’s abstract says.

READ MORE: Young people with chronic disease at greater risk of suicide: study

The paper’s lead investigator, Martin Smith, a doctoral candidate in Western’s Department of Psychology, said while the team couldn’t yet say perfectionism was a cause of suicide, their findings suggest the two are closely correlated.

“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,” he said in a statement, noting that those who are intent on perfection may not seek help, viewing it as an admission of imperfection.

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“We’re told, ‘Aim high, reach for the stars.’ For some people, even excellence isn’t good enough, and that’s where they run into issues,” he said. “Insisting on flawlessness is simply not mentally healthy, adaptive, or advisable.”

The team’s findings, the paper says, lend support to suggestions self-generated and socially based pressures for perfection are part of the “premorbid personality of people prone to suicide ideation and attempts.”

READ MORE: Why men are more likely to die by suicide and how to help someone at risk

“Our findings join a wider literature suggesting that, when people experience their social world as pressure-filled, judgmental, and hypercritical, they think about and/or engage in various potential means of escape,” — like substance abuse or binge eating — “including suicide,” the paper says.

Researchers said they sought to clarify perfectionism’s role in suicide after more than 50 years of research implicated it as a suicide risk, but never conferred it as a result of between-study inconsistencies in findings and underpowered studies.

The paper was co-authored by Samantha Chen and Donald Saklofske of Western University, Simon Sherry of Dalhousie University, Christopher Mushquash of Lakehead University, Gordon Flett of York University, and Paul Hewitt of the University of British Columbia.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.