Helping teens tackle the perils of perfectionism

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Flinders University research carried out in four Adelaide schools is changing lives across Australia by providing “psychological immunization” to protect young people against the destructive effects of perfectionism on their mental health.

Dr Tom Nehmy, a clinical psychologist who trained at Flinders, is the man behind a new resilience program which prevents mental health issues in high school students by teaching them psychological skills before symptoms occur.

Describing it as the mental health equivalent of brushing your teeth, Dr Nehmy said his prevention approach is the only one in the world specifically targeting perfectionism, takes young people on a step by step process through which they learn balanced, realistic thinking and develop skills to deal with stress and anxiety.

Dr Nehmy found in his study of more than 1,000 Adelaide students that those who followed his program, which consists of eight lessons, consistently scored lower on measures of the onset of depression and anxiety, compared with those who didn’t.

The program, which is being rolled out in schools in South Australia and New South Wales, has been so successful that Dr Nehmy said he is being contacted by high school principals who have heard about its results from their colleagues.

“As a practising psychologist, I became aware of several issues and behaviours among my younger clients which appeared consistently, regardless of the actual mental health condition, and this prompted me to investigate whether there might be a common factor feeding into many psychological problems,” Dr Nehmy said.

“That led me to review more than 700 research papers from around the world, and I found that the effectiveness of school-based approaches to emotional wellbeing in adolescents was, overall, poor.

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“Eventually I found the common risk factor that best explained the problems associated with depression, anxiety and eating disorders – perfectionism.

“Perfectionism basically involves things like very black and white thinking, being extremely self-critical and having an inability to cope with pressure because of fear of failure.

“These are all issues that correspond with the pressure that comes from a culture of perfectionism, which makes people feel like they aren’t good enough.

“Because the most effective way to address mental health problems is to stop them occurring in the first place, I set out to find a way to help young people build their psychological skills to avoid the kind of downward spiral which can occur when they aren’t able to regulate some of the behaviours and thoughts associated with perfectionism.

“Essentially it’s like the mental health equivalent of brushing your teeth. Just as we have daily strategies to keep our bodies healthy, we can learn strategies for helpful thinking and behaviour to maintain good mental health.

Dr Nehmy’s motivation to pursue this research, to be published in the international journal Behaviour Research and Therapy, was more than just an intellectual one.

“For years I was curious if it was possible to prevent the onset of multiple mental health problems with a single prevention program, but it was only when I saw several people close to me struggle with mental health issues that this research program was really set in motion.

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“It became a kind of personal mission.”

(Source: Flinders University, Behaviour Research and Therapy)

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Date Created: May 14, 2015