Suicide, Perfectionism and the New School Year

by Iyad Alkhouri, MD, Assistant Medical Director

scott-webb-22537In this blog we often write about the escalating suicide rate among young people across America, and for good reason.

According to new government data, the suicide rate among girls between the ages of 15 and 19 reached an all-time high in 2015 for the 40-year period beginning in 1975.

This is “back-to-school” season throughout our country; the time when adolescents and young  women return to high school, or possibly enter college for the first time. This is often a time of extreme pressure and stress; not surprisingly, this is the age group to which the above statistic refers.

Why does suicide continue to escalate among young females? Certainly, that is a question with many answers; there is no one culprit. But, as our children return to school, it might be time to take a serious look at one of the risk factors: our society’s inordinate focus on achievement, performance and perfectionism.

Our young people become far too stressed far too early about grades. In high school, a 4.0 grade point average is no longer good enough; now with advanced placement classes, teens are encouraged to get 4.5 or 4.6 GPAs. All this so that they can get into a “good” school. Then what?  The pressure to perform only increases when they go to college. Add that to the necessity for girls to be popular, attractive, and most of all thin, and a perfect storm is brewing.

Young female college students often get caught up in eating disorders as a method to cope with this immense pressure and/ or prescription pharmaceuticals like Adderall to maintain their academic “edge” while also keeping their weight in check.

The world of academia does not hold a patent on over-achieving.  In recent years, athletics has rapidly caught up. In a certain segment of society, gone are the days when many girls could play soccer or enjoy gymnastics for the sheer love of the sport. If even a modicum of talent is displayed, coaches or trainers are brought in with an eye to a college scholarship, or even…the Olympics.

What Made Maddy Run is a new book that examines the suicide of a young female college athlete. Like so many of the young women we see at Timberline Knolls, Madison Holleran was beautiful, popular, smart and an incredible athlete. And yet, she ended her life by jumping off of a building because despite the perfect facade, she was a young woman troubled by depression and anxiety. To a large degree, the story of Maddy defaults to that single word: perfect.

At some point our entire culture must come to an understanding that perfection does not exist; it’s not just unrealistic, it is impossible. Therefore, we must all stop trying to force our children, both boys and girls, to strive for something that is unattainable.

The pressure is too great and the possible cost is just too high.

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