August 16, 2020

Social Prescribed Perfectionism


In recent years, depression has been more socially acceptable to talk about than it has in the past. Despite this, it can still be a taboo topic that people are afraid to talk about. Or they may even feel uncomfortable when it’s brought up. However, former US First Lady Michelle Obama did not shy away from discussing her mental health.

On the 6th August, former First Lady Michelle Obama indicated that she is suffering from “low-grade depression because of the pandemic, racial injustice and the “hypocrisy” of the Trump Administration. During the second episode of her podcast, the former First Lady revealed "Not just because of the quarantine, but because of the racial strife, and just seeing this administration, watching the hypocrisy of it, day in and day out, is dispiriting."

Depression affects every race and ethnicity. In fact, it is the most common mental disorder. According to the World Health Organization (WHO),  more than 264 million people of all ages suffer from depression globally. In addition, depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide and is a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease. Below are a few more key facts, according to WHO:

  • More women are affected by depression than men
  • Depression can lead to suicide
  • There are effective psychological and pharmacological treatments for moderate and severe depression

While we all can agree these facts are staggering and some treatments offer hope, this is a moment to discuss depression within two marginalized communities: the Black community and the LGBTQIA+ community. 

(While this space is for LGBTQIA+ issues, there needs to be a sense of inclusivity. A more in-depth discussion for LGBTQIA+ and depression will happen soon.) 

When you discuss mental health within the Black community, you need to look at several influences, according to the Mental Health Foundation. These include:

  1. Racism and discrimination
  2. Social and economic inequalities
  3. Mental health stigma within our community
  4. Criminal justice system
  5. Other factors

While the Mental Health Foundation has a very accurate depiction of what causes depression in the Black community, there is one influence even the Mental Health Foundation does not list: socially prescribed perfectionism. According to Serie McDougal “Socially prescribed perfectionism is different from self-prescribed perfectionism because it comes from other people’s unrealistic expectations that are imposed on a person. Some social scientists believe that this kind of perfectionism is worse because it is understood to be less controllable because it is imposed by others.” Lambert, Robinson and lalongo conducted a study and the results are shocking.

Photo credit: Jonathan Hoxmark, Unsplash

“Lambert, Robinson, and Ialongo sampled 492 African American adolescents in grades 7, 8, and 9.  At each grade the youth explained: 1) how often they experienced racial discrimination, 2) the extent to which they had socially prescribed perfectionist beliefs, and 3) the extent to which they had experienced anxiety and depressive symptoms. Lambert, Robinson, and Ialongo’s research suggests that the experience of racism in the 7th grade led to socially prescribed perfectionist beliefs in the 8th grade, which in turn led to depressive symptoms in the 9th grade.”

Socially prescribed perfectionism could even be something prominent Democrats such as Michelle Obama contend with.  For example, on a miniscule scale, while serving as First Lady, Michelle Obama was scolded for wearing a sleeveless dress. Yet, First Lady Melania Trump is praised for doing the exact same thing. Being such a small issue, one can clearly see the unfairness of the treatment that the former First Lady had to put up with.

However, Michelle Obama is not alone in dealing with socially prescribed perfectionism. Many Black men and women experience this, especially when there are only very few Black people within an office space. The anxiety is high. There is an unspoken burden that we need to be perfect in order to give the next Black person an opportunity. 

For example, during a holiday party, an executive at a charity told me, “I have to be well because I am the only Black manager here. If I mess up, I mess it up for all Black people. However, when I saw you in the hallway, I knew I was doing a good job.” This is an enormous burden to bear. I was not his responsibility, either. However, he knew the social prescribed perfectionism that ran within the organization.

This story is not uncommon. Michelle Obama’s depression is not uncommon. We must do better when it comes not only to talking about depression but in understanding the many layers and causes of depression.

While Republicans are working to remove protections in the Affordable Care Act, the proposed 2020 Democratic Party platform commits to “tackle entrenched racial disparities in health care, reduce prescription drug prices by standing up to big pharmaceutical companies, and make it easier to access mental health and substance use disorder treatment and long-term services and supports in metropolitan and rural areas alike” and securing universal healthcare access.