The price of perfectionism: Suicidal thoughts along cultural lines

Young female student sitting near a stack of books and a bookshelf looking depressed

Researchers are focused on learning more about perfectionism and how it is internalized in different cultures

Gordon Flett looks at ethnic variations on perfectionism, and how they relate to suicidal thoughts in university students. This study, a global first, could help Canadian undergrads.

There is no doubt university students are under increasing pressure to succeed in their academic, social and personal lives. York University psychology Professor Gordon Flett, Canada Research Chair and director of the LaMarsh Centre for Child & Youth Research, wanted to know more about this pressure, how it is internalized in different cultures and how research could point the way to prevention.

The research, undertaken by Flett with Chang Chen and Paul Hewitt of the University of British Columbia, studied Asian Canadian and European Canadian undergrads and focused on perfectionism and suicidality ─ the likelihood of an individual completing suicide. The researchers found that perfectionism was not associated with suicidality in European Canadian students, but it was in Asian Canadian students.This suggests that ethnicity could be used predict suicidal thoughts.

“These findings provide an important glimpse into perfectionism in different cultural contexts,” says Flett. “Our study underscores the importance of considering perfectionism in addressing suicidal risks in certain populations and cultural contexts. This is an extension of our other recent work, which suggests that perfectionism substantially amplifies suicide risk among people experiencing psychological pain.”

The second leading cause of death among young people is suicide

Gordon Flett

Psychology Professor Gordon Flett

The need is great. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, suicide accounts for 24 per cent of all deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds in this country. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people, after motor vehicle accidents (Statistics Canada).

The “Canadian Community Health Study: Mental Health 2012,” published by Statistics Canada, revealed a shocking statistic specific to the student population: Nearly one in 10 students had seriously considered ending their life.

Research builds on previous knowledge 

Flett was studying the links between suicide, depression and perfectionism. Previous work by Hewitt and Flett broke perfectionism into three components:

  • self-oriented perfectionism (a requirement for the self to be perfect);
  • other-oriented perfectionism (a requirement for others to be perfect); and
  • socially prescribed perfectionism (the perception that others require perfection of oneself).

The current study’s objective was to examine the relationships between perfectionism and perceived pressure, depression and suicidality separately for participants of European and Asian descent. This research was the first ever to consider the experiences of European and Asian Canadian students in this way.

Why were Asian Canadians selected? American studies had found that Asian-American students reported feeling more self-doubt, being more concerned about mistakes, and experiencing greater parental expectations and criticism when compared to European American counterparts. These feelings were more strongly associated with poorer academic performance, lower self-esteem, greater loneliness, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among Asian Americans.

Nearly one in 10 students had seriously considered ending their life.  – Statistics Canada (2012)

For these reasons, Flett hypothesized that Asian Canadian students would display depressive symptoms, perceived pressure and suicidality – more so than European Canadian students.

Canadian undergraduate students participate in study

In this study, 240 undergrads (153 women and 87 men, ages 17 to 29) were recruited from a major Canadian university. Half were East Asian in ethnic heritage; half were European Canadians.

Participants underwent a variety of tests, using five measurement tools:

  1. Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, measuring participants’ responses in terms of the following:
  • self-oriented perfectionism ─ “One of my goals is to be perfect in everything I do;”
  • other-oriented perfectionism ─ “If I ask someone to do something, I expect it to be done flawlessly;” and
  • socially prescribed perfectionism ─ “Anything that I do that is less than excellent will be seen as poor work by those around me.” 
  1. Pressure Inventory-III, which gained information about stressors, including family, work, school, peer and intimate relationships; and self-imposed pressures.
  2. Adult Suicide Ideation Questionnaire, containing questions about suicidal thoughts ranging from general wishes that one were dead or never born to distinctive risk factors, such as thoughts of how and when to kill oneself.
  3. Scale for Suicide Ideation, which gained information on the risk for suicidal behaviour, including consideration of suicidal attempts, frequency and attitude toward suicidal thoughts, and specific plans for suicide.
  4. Beck Depression Inventory (Second Edition), assessing the severity of depression over the past two weeks, including feelings of sadness, hopelessness and suicidality associated with depression.

Interpreting findings through a cultural lens

The study found that Asian Canadian students scored significantly higher than European Canadian students in socially prescribed perfectionism and perceived pressures from family, work-related and intimate relationships. They also scored significantly higher on thoughts of suicide, suicidal risk and depressive symptoms.

Students walking through a hallway

Undergrad students from across Canada participated in the study

Why was this happening? American researchers Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama (1991) found that in the collectivist Asian cultures, individuals seek to conform and fit into the group, whereas in Western cultures, autonomy is prioritized. This sense of autonomy, which American researchers Joshua Foster, W. Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge (2003) associated with narcissism, could inadvertently be protecting European Canadian students from the perils of perfectionism.

Awareness alone could make a difference and lead to preventive interventions.

“One of my goals is to be perfect in everything I do.” 

“If I ask someone to do something, I expect it to be done flawlessly.”

“Anything that I do that is less than excellent will be seen as poor work by those around me.” – Study participants 

This research was funded by a grant from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada.

The article, “Ethnic variations on other-oriented perfectionism’s associations with depression and suicide behaviour,” was published in Personality and Individual Differences (January 2017). To read more about Flett’s research, visit the Faculty of Health website.

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca