Perfectionism and student mental health: a pilot intervention based on compassion-focussed therapy.

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: Psychology


Over a quarter (27%) of UK students experience poor mental health (YouGov, 2016), and it is important that research is conducted to understand this so that universities can better ameliorate this distress.

Research suggests student distress can be caused by unhealthy perfectionism (e.g. Shafran et al, 2002). This unhealthy 'clinical' perfectionism is defined as the strict measurement of self-worth against demanding standards, despite negative consequences (Shafran et al, 2002). Research is required to develop effective and accessible methods for reducing the effects of perfectionism in students both on psychological distress and academic performance.

An especially pernicious aspect of perfectionism is self-criticism (e.g. Dunkley & Blankstein, 2000). This is thought to be a maintenance factor in perfectionism and a cause of psychological distress (e.g. Shafran et al, 2016). However, no studies have so far assessed the therapeutic potential of developing an intervention relating to self criticism to help tackle perfectionism.

In response to gaps in existing literature, this project will look at developing and testing a new intervention based on the principles of compassion-focused therapy to tackle self-criticism and perfectionism. This would aim to improve psychological wellbeing and academic performance in students. First, a quantitative and qualitative study would inform intervention development. This project would pave the way for an intervention that could influence both student wellbeing and university academic attainment.

Drawing on a CBT model of perfectionism (Shafran et al, 2016), the essentials of compassion-focused therapy (Gilbert, 2009), and recommendations from qualitative investigation, the project aims to develop a group psychoeducation intervention for academic perfectionism, for university students. This intervention will broaden an intervention that is known to be effective in helping with self-criticism (Rose et al, in press) to perfectionism. The intervention will be evaluated in an uncontrolled study, which will assess the feasibility of recruiting and retaining participants and participant feedback about the acceptability and usefulness of the content. To gain preliminary indications of the impact of the intervention, pre- and post-measures of perfectionism, depression, anxiety and measures of the extent to which perfectionism interferes with studying and academic performance will also be taken. The study will aim to recruit up to 20 participants from the student body of Kings' College London, the prospective supervising institution of the project. The intervention will then be developed further in accordance with this feedback.

This study will be used to assess the feasibility and suitability of an intervention of this kind and estimate effect sizes as a precursor to future, larger studies.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2104600 Studentship ES/P000703/1 01/10/2018 30/09/2022 Robyn Murphy