We are university teachers and every day many young people knock on our door. They tend to be ambitious, bright and hardworking. They have a wide network of friends and have the support of their families. But no matter how balanced they seem: we have observed that they are increasingly more likely to seek our support not only for academic matters but also in problems related to their mental health.
We are not the only ones who have observed this trend. The number of mental illnesses detected in students in the campuses of the United Kingdom has reached its historic maximum . And all over the world, young people come to the doctor’s office with unprecedented levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts .
One of the possible reasons is that in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom young people today are the first generation to have grown up in a society based on the principles of neoliberalism championed by the leaders of the late twentieth century: Ronald Reagan, Brian Mulroney and Margaret Thatcher, respectively. In the last 50 years, collective interest and civic responsibility have been progressively diminishing and have been replaced by private interest and by the inherent competitiveness of the free market.
In this new society based on the market, young people are evaluated with new criteria. Social networks, tests in schools and universities and work performance make young people are selected and classified by friends, teachers and employers. If young people obtain bad valuations, the logic of the market society dictates that they deserve less, that their inferiority reflects some weakness or imperfection.
That’s why today young people feel enormous pressure to demonstrate what they are worth and stand out from the rest. The tests speak for themselves. Epidemics of serious mental illness, for example, show the negative effects of a market-based society and a culture that is changing the way young people think about themselves and others.
Increase in perfectionism
Renowned psychologists Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett have suggested that one of the behaviors that differentiate the youngest from their elders is their obsession with perfectionism.
Broadly speaking, perfectionism is an irrational desire for perfection combined with a harsh self-criticism. What sets a perfectionist apart from a person who is simply diligent or hard-working is his unstoppable need to correct his own imperfections.
Perfectionists need to hear that they have achieved the best possible results. When they do not obtain the approval of their interlocutors, they suffer psychological disorders, because they relate errors and failures with weaknesses and lack of merit.
We recently published a study in the Psychological Bulletin that shows that since 1989 the levels of perfectionism have increased remarkably among young people. We believe that in part it can be a symptom that young people try to obtain security, to connect with others and to find their self-esteem in a market-based neoliberal society.
The idea of aspiring to perfection, even if irrational, has become desirable, even necessary, in a world in which behavior, status and image determine the utility and value of the person. Do not get away to find examples: the market offers all kinds of cosmetic remedies for the defective consumer . Meanwhile, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are offered as an exchange platform for the most perfect versions of ourselves and our ideal lifestyle.
It is a culture that abuses insecurities and amplifies imperfections, encouraging young people to focus on their personal shortcomings. As a result, some young people constantly turn around how they should behave, what they should look like or what they should have. They get stressed as they try to perfect themselves and perfect their lives.
It is not strange, therefore, that there are studies that indicate that perfectionism is linked to depression, anorexia nervosa, suicidal thoughts and premature death.
We feel a great concern for the problems of our students. For the first time, the data foresee that young people will be, in adulthood, less materially solvent than their parents. But material well-being is not the only thing at stake. The physical and mental well-being of youth is threatened by the invisible epidemic of perfectionism.
It is time for colleges and universities, and politicians and experts who help determine how educational institutions work, to take measures to protect the well-being of young people. They must resist the competitiveness imposed by the market at the expense of the mental health of young people. They should teach the importance of compassion in the face of competition. If they do not, it is likely that the perfectionist drive, associated with mental illnesses, will increase steadily.
Author Bios: Thomas Curran is a Assistant Professor at the University of Bath and Andrew P. Hill is a Professor at York St John University