York study finds academic perfectionists more prone to depression

Parents of students who push themselves a little too hard should be on the lookout for symptoms of depression, according to a new study by psychology Professor Myriam Mongrain. The study of graduate students indicated that those who hold very high standards for themselves and take academic failures to heart are more likely to experience major, recurring depressions.

“An example would be a student who receives a negative test result and seems to get disproportionately upset about it – sobbing or becoming irrational, studying for hours on end,” says Mongrain, who is based in York’s Faculty of Arts. “This signals that the student is a self-critic, and this personality trait puts him or her at a significant risk for serious depressive episodes.”

Mongrain says the self-critic’s quest for academic recognition often masks underlying feelings of unworthiness. “They continuously berate themselves for their perceived shortcomings and cling to lofty standards or goals in order to ward off feelings of incompetence and inadequacy,” she says.

The study also links depression to “needy” personality traits, or what psychologists call “immature dependence,” characterized by chronic fear that one’s need for love and support will not be met.

Students with a combination of both these personality traits are 50% more susceptible to major, recurring depression.

“Both personality styles have now been identified as important risk factors for major depression,” says Mongrain. “For example, graduate students who score high on measures of both self-criticism and neediness have been found to have more previous episodes of major depression and are more likely to have a recurrence of the disorder over a 20-month followup.”

While the study focused on the perceptions of university students, Mongrain says that these findings also have relevance outside academia. “These kinds of achievement stressors, especially those tied to major letdowns in our interpersonal lives – for example, rejection or loss – have significant impact on the population at large,” she says.

The results of the study will be published this spring in the Journal of Clinical Psychology and the Journal of Cognitive Therapy and Research.