The college athlete mental health crisis: When perfectionism puts young people at risk

K.C. Alfred

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or visit for more resources.

In March, former Ohio State soccer player Harry Miller sparked a national debate when he revealed that he would no longer play football due to serious mental health issues.

“I felt depressed and anxious. I had suicidal thoughts,” Miller said in an interview for a new All Day Today special, “Mindfulness Matters:Battling the Youth Mental Health Crisis. Miller recalls playing soccer when he was younger because he loved it and “soccer was soccer.”

Watch Mind Matters: Fighting the Youth Mental Health Crisis, hosted by Carson Daly, on May 23 at 11:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. ET.

But things started to change for Miller when he realized he could use his skills to get into college. He remembers a coach coming up to him and talking about the NFL. he says: “In that moment, I don’t know, you just feel the weight of the hand you’re holding.” “Some of the prognostications felt like a death sentence.”

He also recalls where he was at the time. “You think, ‘This is impossible, everyone thinks I am. Now I have nowhere else to go.'”

Miller’s story, with refreshing honesty and openness, echoes that of other college athletes such as Katie Meyer, Sarah Schultz and Lauren Burnett, all three of whom committed suicide earlier this year. It highlights how devastating the pressure to live up to expectations can be – and why it’s so important to understand that perfectionism, depression and ambition can leave young people with mental health challenges.

How does perfectionism become dysfunctional?
Dr. Randy P. Auerbach, associate professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center, told Today that the two main factors in perfectionism are having high standards and being overly self-critical.

“You can imagine that for a lot of people, it’s motivating to some degree,” said Auerbach, who is also co-director of the International Student Initiative for World Mental Health.

Dr. Igor Galynker, director of the Beth Israel Suicide Research Laboratory at Mount Sinai and a professor of psychiatry, told Today that there are actually multiple types of perfectionism, in which people may have high expectations of others or of themselves, or may feel that society has high expectations of them.

Those who believe their high standards come from outside forces (also known as socially prescriptive perfectionism) are at risk for mental health problems. “People with socially prescriptive perfectionism will set goals for themselves that are impossible to achieve” because they believe that others expect them, Galynker explains. When perfectionists fail to achieve these goals, they “keep trying to the point where they can’t look at anything else.

The link between perfectionism and suicide risk
Dr. Breta Ostermeyer, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Oklahoma, told Today: “It’s very concerning when people, especially teenagers, put all of their self-worth into their accomplishments.”

Auerbach added: “Your personal standards become more ethereal. They get further and further away from you.” And, as the possibility of reaching new heights inevitably grows smaller, “you become more self-critical.”

Perfectionists are so hard on themselves that when they don’t achieve those goals, “it becomes a huge disappointment, a huge disservice,” Ostermeyer says. For some people, especially those with other risk factors, that disappointment can lead to depression, she says. These feelings can also manifest as anxiety about failure, or insecurity about never having enough.

When perfectionism becomes dysfunctional in this way, it can lead to mental health problems, and there is a long history of research linking perfectionism to a high risk of suicide and depression.

Of course, not all perfectionists are depressed or have suicidal thoughts. But perfectionism in successful young people can lead them to give up everything else in pursuit of their goals. Auerbach says:-“Teenagers who pursue perfectionism to succeed in one area may do so at the cost of maintaining peer relationships or family relationships.”

In this way, perfectionism can lead directly to mental suffering. It can also deprive high-achieving teens of the support systems and skills they need to cope with the inevitable ups and downs of life. Those with other risk factors for anxiety and depression may be particularly vulnerable to extreme perfectionism, experts say.

Signs to look for in young people
If your child is dealing with perfectionism, which can be problematic, the right way to intervene depends on where they are on the spectrum and how much perfectionism takes over their lives.

First, watch for someone who spends a lot of time on a particular goal or activity, especially if it comes at the expense of friendships or other parts of their life, Auerbach said.

If a person is further along in the continuum, they should get mental health help from a professional. They may show signs of depression or anxiety, which affects their life at school or their relationships with family and friends.Galynker notes that depression is not a prerequisite for suicidal thoughts, but it can be a major factor.

In the most extreme cases, it’s important to recognize the emergency warning signs. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, these may include behavioral changes, as well as expressing feelings of despair or being a burden to many people.

Among perfectionists, Galynker says, this despair may be expressed as “a feeling of being in a failed, unbearable situation because of failure to achieve some goal.” His research focuses on suicidal crisis syndrome, a term for an acute suicidal state in which someone may quickly attempt to end their life, separate from someone’s lifetime risk of suicide.

Galynker said one sign of being in suicidal crisis syndrome is that “they can’t stop thinking about their failures.” “They feel controlled by their own thoughts, and it’s very painful.” They may have sleep problems and begin to turn away from others. These are warning signs that someone needs immediate help.

Creating a healthy balance of activity in young perfectionists

Even if a young person demonstrates impressive skills in certain areas, such as sports, it’s important not to put all of their self-worth in one basket, experts tell Today magazine.

Not only does this expose kids to the ill effects of severe perfectionism, it prevents them from developing the important life skills and healthy coping mechanisms they should be learning during this time. Auerbach says: “If we focus on one goal in particular, and our self-worth depends on the achievement of that goal, it can come at the expense of some other truly normative adolescent goals.”

Balancing the time they spend on this activity with the other normal parts of a teen’s life, whether it’s spending time with friends or pursuing other hobbies, is critical to helping them develop the life skills they need.

Introduce your child to a wide variety of activities.

Auerbach explains, “One of our responsibilities as parents is to bring new experiences to our teens’ attention and show them the wide range of things they can do to expand their curiosity.”

He advises parents to pay attention to how much time their children spend on activities and try to introduce them to new hobbies to see if they are interested. As a family, you could try cooking or hiking, for example.

Life is full of different interests and opportunities, and a setback in any one area doesn’t have that much of an impact. Says Auerbach: “Maybe you finish runner-up or your team doesn’t make the playoffs, but there are other great aspects of your life.” “You’re pursuing different hobbies, academics and friends, because not everything depends on that activity.”

Set realistic goals.

If a child is particularly good at a sport or other activity, the adults in their lives need to be careful not to instill the message that they are destined to be the “superstar of the family,” Ostermeyer says. That might lead them to believe that if they’re a little bit worse than the next Messi, they’re failures.

Of course, she explains, there’s nothing wrong with having big dreams or lofty goals, but they still need to be attainable. “There needs to be a support system to catch them and be realistic . … Families have to communicate, ‘This could be great. But if it doesn’t work, we love you. We respect you.”

Revisit wins and losses.

A game won or lost is worth reflecting on. But Auerbach said it’s also helpful to reframe those as part of an ongoing journey. He also suggests encouraging other aspects of the process for youth, such as the friendships and teamwork skills they are building, rather than focusing on the end result of the game.

Help young people plan and advocate for themselves.

Teens need a balance of activity and healthy habits that may naturally shape their day when they are still living at home, Auerbach said. But as kids get older and go to college, they become more autonomous and have to establish those routines for themselves.

Also, make sure kids know where to go if they need mental health help, whether it’s a trusted teacher, a coach or their college’s counseling center.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or visit for more resources.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We earn a commission when you buy through our link. Everything we recommend is a product that we have evaluated.

Recent Posts

Go To Mini Dress Black

Up to 70% off sale