As I read about the suicide of Stanford University soccer star Katie Meyer, my first thought was sadness for the loved ones she left behind. Next I wondered whether perfectionism had played a role in her death.
That’s the thing about perfectionists — they’re so good at putting up a front that you often can’t tell there’s anything wrong until it’s too late.
Having nearly lost my perfectionist son, Noah, to suicide in 2018, it’s what I always wonder when I hear that a young, accomplished person has taken his or her life. As it turns out, Katie’s parents also wondered how much of a toll the pressure to excel had taken on their daughter.
“There is anxiety and there is stress to be perfect, to be the best, to be number one,” Katie’s mother, Gina Meyer, said, choking back tears during an interview on “TODAY” days after her daughter’s death.
Watching Gina Meyer and her husband cry was almost unbearable. Their grief left me feeling as helpless as I did four years ago when a friend’s son died by suicide only days after Noah was finally discharged after spending three months in a psychiatric hospital.
How many more young people have to die because they’re afraid to fail? I asked myself as I watched the “TODAY” appearance. I now understand that Noah’s depression was strongly linked to his belief that he had to be perfect — something that had never occurred to me because he’d always been an easygoing, high-achieving kid who seemed to have everything under control.
But that’s the thing about perfectionists — they’re so good at putting up a front that you often can’t tell there’s anything wrong until it’s too late. “We had no red flags,” Gina Meyer said, and I knew exactly how confused and hopeless she felt.
As a society, we revere and reward perfection. “It starts in elementary school or maybe even earlier, where we get so many messages from parents or teachers or peers that the valued people are able to get the right answers or do something perfectly or color inside the lines,” Amy Edmonson, a professor at Harvard Business School, said on a recent episode of the podcast “Well Balanced.” “You just want to be one of the valued people.”
In moderation, perfectionism can be a useful, motivating trait. Carried to the extreme, it can lead to depression and suicide, studies have found.
The latter was the fate of Madison Holleran, a high school soccer star who died by suicide in 2014 after sinking into a deep depression while at the University of Pennsylvania, where she competed in track and field. Author Kate Fagan told Holleran’s story in the 2017 best seller “What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen.”
I came across the book a few years after Noah had been released from the hospital, when he was being kinder to and more forgiving of himself. It read like a novel, but to me it was a cautionary tale
“Maddy’s story is a very specific story about one high-achieving kid who, by all outward appearances, seemed to be living the definition of the quote-unquote American dream, and in that story, there are a lot of universal takeaways,” Fagan said when I called to talk to her about perfectionism among college athletes. Chief among those takeaways are what Fagan calls “destructive perfectionism, achievement culture and pressure on student athletes.”
In the years since Holleran’s death, college athletic departments have begun to provide more mental health services, said Fagan, who is often invited to campuses to speak. Usually she is joined by a campus mental health professional. For those in the audience, hearing about another athlete’s experience can be freeing, she said.
Perfection as a goal is unrealistic because it’s unattainable — and dangerous. “It leads these kids down this horrible route, this path of destruction,” said Holleran’s oldest sister, Carli Bushoven, who is executive director of the Madison Holleran Foundation, which promotes suicide prevention and provides support for those in crisis.
It took a couple of sharp psychiatrists six weeks into my son’s hospital stay to identify that his problem wasn’t simply depression, it was depression triggered by obsessive compulsive behaviors that had gone from being useful (helping him to become a straight-A engineering student while maintaining an active social life) to maladaptive (convincing himself that if he couldn’t be perfect and perform to the unrealistic standards he’d set for himself, he should be dead).
I should have been grateful that trained medical professionals had finally figured out what was going on and designed a workable treatment plan. But my initial reaction was anger at myself for not being more attuned to what was happening inside Noah’s head, for feeling I’d failed in my number one job as a mother: protecting my child. If I’d known, I thought to myself, I could have prevented it.
I continued berating myself — until it dawned on me that believing I was a mind reader who could control Noah was as damaging as the perfectionist mindset that had landed him in the hospital in the first place.
That’s when I decided to focus on changing my own behavior. If I could forgive myself for what went wrong and be grateful that we were finally getting it right — Noah was alive after all, and getting the help that he needed — I could model that behavior for him. We fail, because we’re human. If we keep at it, eventually we might figure out how to get things right. Even if we don’t, we’ll learn something along the way.
If we are committed to keeping more parents from the devastating grief of losing a child to suicide, there are things that we all need to do as well. To start with, we need to let up on the gas pedal of pressure to perform, pressure that Fagan said has intensified in the eight years since Holleran’s death.
Everyone — kids, parents and coaches — needs to understand it’s not only okay to fail, it’s healthy. It’s not always enjoyable, but it’s how we learn and grow.
There’s even more emphasis on trying to get into a top university and excelling athletically. There’s now pressure for kids as young as 12 to start to focus exclusively on one sport and commit up to eight hours a week to training. “With all the pressures and money in it, all of those things change the relationship that kids will have with sports,” she noted.
Fagan said coaches need to understand the pressure-filled environment their athletes come from, while athletes need to understand that there are “peaks and valleys” in their relationship with their sport. “Most college athletes don’t realize that having periods where you hate your sport and struggle is also a common experience.”
And everyone — kids, parents and coaches — needs to understand it’s not only OK to fail, it’s healthy. It’s not always enjoyable, but it’s how we learn and grow.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.