The Unsettling Truth About What’s Hurting Today’s Students

New research says the pressure to be perfect is taking a severe toll.

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Kenneth Shelton / EyeEm / Getty Images
Kenneth Shelton / EyeEm / Getty Images

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

I’ve been a college professor for the past 10 years. A few years ago, the semester was winding down, and my students started winding up. They might as well have all been holding up “Will Work for A” signs; the collective angst was palpable. It was like the song Under Pressure” was stuck on repeat in everyone’s heads:

Pressure, pushing down on me
Pressing down on you, no man ask for
Under pressure, that burns a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets…

Late one night, one of my 4.0 diehards called from her hospital bed. She’d been hit by a car, but was afraid if she missed class, it would jeopardize her grade. I started side-eyeing the phone — you’d think should would’ve called her priest, sister, life coach, or significant other first. Instead, she had me, her professor, on speed dial.

Despite my pinky swear and earnest attempts to convey that she wouldn’t be penalized, and the repeated emphasis that she should not come to class, she signed herself out of the hospital and showed up to class black-eyed and concussed. She was the definition of “extenuating circumstances” and “medical emergency” in the syllabus, but she did not want to risk her A. When I expressed concern, she seemed miffed, like I wasn’t appreciating her commitment to excellence.

Bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah
Bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah

This is one of too many situations I’ve encountered that keep me up at night, wondering how to get the song out of their heads.

It’s the terror of knowing
What this world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming, “Let me out!”
Pray tomorrow takes me higher
Pressure on people, people on streets…

A new study affirms that the pressure to be perfect is doing a number on today’s college students.

The study, authored by Thomas Curran, Ph.D., and Andrew Hill, Ph.D., is the first to examine group generational differences in perfectionism, which they define as “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.”

Their findings from 164 samples derived from the 41,641 American, Canadian, and British college students completing the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale indicate that we should be concerned for our millennials. Between 1989 and 2016, the self-oriented perfectionism score increased by 10 percent, socially prescribed increased by 33 percent, and other-oriented increased by 16 percent.

Curran and Hill explain that “Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve in modern life… young people are responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves.” They suggest this as one of the reasons that perfectionism is rising among millennials.

In a hyper-competitive market, it would seem sacrilegious to expect our students not to compete with each other, even though research affirms that obsessive ladder climbing can lead to disastrous falls.

The issues at hand require all hands on deck — policymakers, leaders, educators, parents, students, and concerned citizens. We can’t afford the constant backdrop of “Under Pressure.” Our students — at every level of education — need new lyrics to  keep on auto repeat. Here are some suggestions:

  • Your mental health is more important than your grades.
  • You don’t have to fake it till you make it.
  • You’re not a robot or a machine.
  • You don’t have to be the best to be good enough.
  • Listen to what your brain, body, and soul are telling you.
  • Stop comparing yourself.
  • It’s not worth it if you get sick.
  • You’re not a human doing — you’re a human being.
  • Perfect is dry, boring, and unsustainable.
  • Connection is our only way out of this mess. Let’s figure this out together.

What would you add to the list?

Originally published at

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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