Suicide rates in the US increased by 30% in the first two decades of this century. More US military veterans took their own lives during this time than died in combat in all military conflicts in which the US was involved during that time. Research shows us that suicide rates have gone up in Europe and the US but not in the developing world. One of the factors considered in researching effects on suicide risk is level of income and level of education, which correlates with higher incomes. What researchers have found is that more education is more likely to increase suicide risk!
Perfectionism and Suicide Risk
Students who are perfectionists tend to get better grades and advance farther in the academic world. They are also more likely to suffer from depression, professional or academic burnout, and suicides. In fact, students in general have higher rates of depression than the general population. Because perfectionists demand more of themselves, commonly fail to forgive themselves for mistakes, and often view normal events in life as failures, they tend to be depressed. At its extreme this mindset leads to suicidal thinking and suicide.
Perfectionism and the Military
The military strives for perfection. While winning most of the games is good enough for a sports team, it is not good enough for a platoon, company, battalion, or battle group in combat. Going house to house looking for ISIS in Fallujah put soldiers into life-threatening situations in which perfect was the necessary standard mission success and, in fact, for survival. Soldiers in these types of situations understandably carry trauma with them afterwards. The more perfectionistic the soldier the more likely they will be to blame themselves for things that were essentially unavoidable like the injury or death of comrades in arms during firefights. The long term consequences of severe trauma can be depression and/or PTSD, both of which are major risk factors for veteran suicide.
Similarities Between Academic and Military Education
No one gets to the upper ranks of the US Army without attending and doing well at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. (Eisenhower was first in his class at West Point and, years later, at the C&GSC. Thus, competition at the higher ranks of the military gives nothing away to competition in academia. And, while the results of failure in academia means not getting a paper published or not becoming the chairman of a department, failure in the military means defeat, death of combatants and civilians, and loss of national sovereignty. Nevertheless, perfectionism is prevalent in both realms as perfectionists tend to succeed and rise to higher levels. Perfectionists in the military tend to survive when others do not. Unfortunately, in both fields of endeavor there is a price to pay for perfectionism, obsessive compulsive behavior, and simply being “up tight.” At its extreme a perfectionistic tendency destroys personal relationships and causes the person to blame themself for things that were, in reality, beyond their control. Chuck Yeager was famous for saying, repeatedly, that something in flying was difficult and dangerous and he would not recommend it, but it could be done. This competitive and perfectionistic attitude, at its best, produces exceptional results, heroes, and all too often tormented individuals, individuals who are tormented by their own thoughts and perceptions of failure.
Type A Personality and Suicide Risk
Years ago cardiologists began identifying individuals for whom they did everything possible to prevent heart attacks and still failed. This subset had a tendency to be perfectionistic and was called “Type A” personality. Referring these folks for counseling and getting them to be less hard on themselves was as or more effective in preventing heart attacks than treating their cholesterol, reducing weight, or even coronary bypass surgery. This same subgroup is found in the military, overachieving, perfectionistic, successful and reliable. And these same folks are at a long term risk for depression and suicide because of their tendency to be unrealistically hard on themselves. These are also some of the folks who may benefit the most from new approaches such as psychedelic medicines that help open up their thinking and allow for therapeutic reappraisal of traumatic events in their pasts.