Hsu: Perfection is Poisonous

by Caroline Hsu | 9/30/14 6:30pm

For many of us, the transition to college life is anything but seamless. At Ivy League and other elite colleges, the feeling of being a big fish in an even bigger pond gnaws at student psyches. We fear being anything less than perfect, of being anything but the “model Ivy League student.”

It’s all too easy for us to feel that if we are not everything, we are nothing. Ivy League students are expected to be socially competent, intelligent, tireless, assertive and driven. We know what we want in life, and exactly what we need to do to achieve our goals. All of us try, whether consciously or unconsciously, to fit that mold. But there are times when, regardless of how hard we try to force it, we can’t conform to those expectations.

This unspoken need to be perfect is toxic — potentially, it is even deadly. Mental health issues on Ivy League campuses have recently been a searing topic of discussion, especially after William Deresiewicz’s recent New Republic essay on perfectionism at top colleges. The expectation of being completely impeccable creates an immense pressure, and in this environment it is easy for anxiety and depression to fester. On top of that, eating disorders (which can result from the need to be in control) are not uncommon among college students — millions across the country suffer from some kind of eating disorder, and most go undiagnosed and untreated, according to a 2010 Eating Disorders Recovery Center survey. In extreme cases, the pressures of college can even lead some to suicide.

In the past year, several tell-all columns by Ivy League students who felt that their respective colleges provided inadequate mental health assistance have highlighted the dire need for school officials to address students’ mental health needs. “My lying, smiling face,” an anonymous piece published in The Daily Princetonian in April, recounts the experiences of a student who was forced to waive her patient-therapist confidentiality rights in order to resume studies at Princeton. These administrative measures are counterproductive, encouraging students to stay silent instead of speaking out.

The mental health resources at high-pressure schools like Princeton and Dartmouth have long been lacking. The combination of perfectionist students’ tendencies to suppress their problems and institutional negligence is both dangerous and unacceptable.

But fortunately, Dartmouth is beginning to catch on. The counseling center recently launched a new suicide prevention website that offers advice for intervention and mental wellness. The recently introducted Campus Connect program teaches staff and students to spot symptoms of suicidal thoughts. Though its effectiveness remains to be seen, the new initiative is another much-needed step in the right direction.

Mental health awareness and prevention is, of course, not a one-sided issue. It is not a college’s responsibility to seek out each and every depressed student. Students must be able to come to terms with any issues they may be having, whether social or academic, and recognize that they perhaps need to seek professional help. We must stop pretending that everything is okay when it is so clearly not.

The ideal of perfection cannot impede living a healthy life. When we feel as though we are floundering, many of us suppress our feelings of doubt instead of seeking desperately needed guidance. We plaster on a smile and downplay our problems, only to have them fester and grow. Yet everything is not lost — with mental health services becoming a larger presence on campuses around the country, there is certainly hope for a brighter future. Top-tier learning institutions like Dartmouth must actively and effectively try to reach out to potentially troubled students. They must work to provide an environment that ensures that their students feel comfortable seeking help. But at the same time, students must realize that being any kind of perfect is an impossible feat. After all, we are all only human — and that’s okay.