Fathom Mag

College Suicides

Redefining success as emotional health

Published on:
May 21, 2018
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4 min.
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In January 2018, Washington State University quarterback Tyler Hilinski shot himself in his apartment. He was twenty-one years old. In March 2018, an eighteen-year-old New York University freshman took his life by jumping out of his apartment building. In 2014, University of Pennsylvania student Madison Holleran took a running leap off a parking garage in Philadelphia because she didn’t fit the model. She was a star track athlete, physically attractive, popular, and very smart. During the 2016–2017 school year, Columbia University had seven students take their lives. These are not isolated stories, nationally there are about one thousand college campus suicides per year. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death for US young adults age twenty to twenty-four.

The problem doesn’t begin in college, though. Students are arriving at college already in emotional distress.

New research reports that in 2015 children between the ages of five and seventeen were visiting hospitals for suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts at twice the rate they were in 2008. A recent TIME magazine article summarized the data.

[A]n estimated 3.1 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 had at least one major depressive episode, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health. The year before, 8.6% of adolescents in ninth through 12th grade reported making at least one suicide attempt in the past 12 months, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. About 30% of girls and 20% of boys—or about 6.3 million teens—have had an anxiety disorder, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health.

As a result, colleges are struggling to handle the spike in anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts among entering students entering college. 

What is causing the spike in anxiety, depression, and suicide? The answer to this question is complex because few college suicide victims leave explanations for their actions—and for those that do only family members have the authority to release that information. The data, however, seems to point to a hopelessness crisis found among high functioning students who are deeply rooted in perfectionism and performance pressure.

Today’s high school and college students are the most perfectionistic cohort possibly in US history. A LiveScience.com article summarized new survey research taken from 41,000 college students in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

The survey measures three different types of perfectionism: “self-oriented” perfectionism, or placing high expectations on oneself; “socially prescribed” perfectionism, or thinking that others have high expectations of you; and “other-oriented” perfectionism, or placing high standards on others. Some of the survey’s questions include: “When I am working on something, I cannot relax until it is perfect”; “I find it difficult to meet others’ expectations of me”; and “Everything that others do must be of top-notch quality.”
The researchers found that today’s college students had higher scores on all three types of perfectionism compared with students in earlier decades. Between 1989 and 2016, students’ average score for self-oriented perfectionism increased by 10 percent, the average score for socially prescribed perfectionism increased by 33 percent and the average score for other-oriented perfectionism increased by 16 percent.

When students receive messages from their parents and the culture at large that their value comes from their performance, academic or otherwise, in comparison to their peers, it sets students up for self-contempt and hopelessness. When the only “good life” is one with the right college major, the perfect job, in the perfect city, with the perfect set of friends, with the perfect body, married to the perfect person, the person becomes hopeless when they realize their imperfect life does not meet the standard. Anything other than perfection becomes failure. If life is failure, why live at all?

What’s the point of having great grades, being a star athlete, or having a great career if your life is characterized by anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts?

Students, therefore, are neurotically comparing themselves to others when their parents tell them not to make decisions that will lead to “flipping burgers at McDonald’s.” Students lose all hope when swiping pictures on Instagram and Snapchat. They compare themselves to an idealized imaginary person who serves as a composite of various attributes and lose all hope that their lives will become that. The result: perfection leads to anxiety and depression, depression and anxiety lead to chronic hopelessness, chronic hopelessness leads to suicidal thoughts.

It is at the point where parents should begin to measure their children’s success with how emotionally healthy they are, rather than their academic, athletic, or professional performance. What’s the point of having great grades, being a star athlete, or having a great career if your life is characterized by anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts?

I would like to be able to say that Christianity can relieve college students of perfectionism. But I’m not convinced. American Christian high school and college students are just as perfectionistic as non-religious students. They’ve been told that they have to be “leaders,” “make an impact,” “engage the culture,” “change the world,” and so on. Many Christian college students are not free to have mental health struggles affected by brain biochemistry because mental health is too often reduced to “issues of the heart.”

Students are under pressure to make a name for themselves by starting a nonprofit, be one of the few Christians in an influential cultural space, have a perfect spiritual life, have no doubts or questions, convert everyone they know to Christianity, and so on. There is a Christian perfectionism also that measures a student’s spiritual success by what is on a student’s résumé. In America, being a Christian college student comes with a great deal of success pressure that has nothing to do with what the Bible actually says.

I would like to be able to say that Christianity can relieve college students of perfectionism. But I’m not convinced.

Perhaps Jesus asking,”For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” is a question we need to hear. Perhaps a modern parent’s main job is to protect their child from a culture of perfectionism. Perhaps what parents ought to boast about the more are not performance credentials (grades, athletics, awards, etc.) but that their children are emotionally and spiritually healthy. Maybe if the Christian community stopped caring about the “happiness” of children as measured in the material terms of comfort and ease—as guaranteed by performance pressure for good grades and high salaries—and started caring about the emotional health thriving of their children the church could provide our society with an alternative that is attractive. Sadly, given what I see across Christian college campuses today, that would be quite revolutionary. We’re not there yet.

Anthony Bradley
Anthony B. Bradley is an American author and professor of religion, theology, and ethics at the King’s College in New York City, where he also serves as the chair of the Religious and Theological Studies program.

Cover image by Chris Brignola.

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