Perfectionism a Major Factor in Suicide

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If in your story you have a character with a strong urge to be perfect, living in a story arc where he or she experiences pressure from those around them to be perfect in all ways and things, you need to ask, what effect will this have on them? 

According to Professor Gordon Flett of York University in England, this character has a higher risk of suicidal thoughts and actions than others.  Worst yet, their drive for perfectionism causes them to project an image of perfection to the world around them, while their self-talk is filled with frustration and expressions of failure because they feel they are living a lie.  These are the people who surprise everyone around them with a suicidal act.  "I never saw that coming," is a common refrain.

It's this realistic detail that creates believable characters and carries your reader or viewer along in your story.

Here's the report:  

Perfectionism is a bigger risk factor in suicide than we may think, says York University Psychology Professor Gordon Flett, calling for closer attention to its potential destructiveness, adding that clinical guidelines should include perfectionism as a separate factor for suicide risk assessment and intervention.

"There is an urgent need for looking at perfectionism with a person-centered approach as an individual and societal risk factor, when formulating clinical guidelines for suicide risk assessment and intervention, as well as public health approaches to suicide prevention," says Flett.

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More than one million people worldwide, including over 40,000 North Americans commit suicide on an annual basis, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's 2012 estimation.

In a research article, Flett and his co-authors Professor Paul Hewitt of the University of British Columbia and Professor Marnin Heisel of Western University note that physicians, lawyers and architects, whose occupations emphasize on precision, and also those in leadership roles are at higher risk for perfectionism-related suicide, citing the recent cases of prominent perfectionists who died by suicide.

Suicidal thoughts linked to external pressures to be perfect
Their article, "The Destructiveness of Perfectionism Revisited: Implications for the Assessment of Suicide Risk and the Prevention of Suicide," published this week in the American Psychological Association journal, Review of General Psychology, highlights several concerns, including how suicide thoughts can be linked to external pressures to be perfect.

The authors document how being exposed to relentless demands to be perfect, a concept they refer to as socially prescribed perfectionism, is linked consistently with hopelessness and suicide. Other key themes discussed are:
  • how perfectionistic self-presentation and self-concealment can lead to suicides that occur without warning; and 
  • how perfectionists often come up with thorough and precise suicide plans.
Perfectionism and hopelessness
"We summarize data showing consistent links between perfectionism and hopelessness and discuss the need for an individualized approach that recognizes the heightened risk for perfectionists," Flett says adding, "They also tend to experience hopelessness, psychological pain, life stress, overgeneralization, and a form of emotional perfectionism that restricts the willingness to disclose suicidal urges and intentions."
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For several years I worked on suicide hotline where we were taught to evaluate the suicidal potential of a caller.  In brief, we were trained to look for two things:
  • A plan - how well thought out and practical?
  • Ready means to carry out their plan - if they talk of shooting themselves and have a loaded gun in their other hand, this is for real.
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Story Source: Materials provided by York University.  Flett, Gordon L.; Hewitt, Paul L.; Heisel, Marnin J. The destructiveness of perfectionism revisited: Implications for the assessment of suicide risk and the prevention of suicide. Review of General Psychology, Vol 18(3), Sep 2014.

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