Researchers call the pressure to be a high achiever, popular and attractive in students the ‘superhero ideal’. Students aiming to be perfect in all aspects of their lives, and inevitably failing at this goal, may end up depressed.
Young people are struggling more than ever with their mental health and well-being, with depressive episodes in the last year as high as 13.2 percent.
Experts argue that the mental health crisis amongst young people is likely to be one of the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, which has been going on for more than two years.
Authors of a new study write that “there is an urgent need to understand which factors increase risk of adolescent depression.”
Young people are reporting pressure to achieve “in multiple arenas, such as good grades, being popular, and feeling attractive.” In addition to all these aspects, they also are at risk for unhealthy eating.
A news release explains that it was the psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair who first put a name to this type of pressure – the “superwoman ideal”; Sally A Theran, associate professor of psychology at Wellesley College, has modified the term to the gender-neutral “superhero ideal.”
The superhero ideal, once internalised, has been shown to cause eating problems, but there has not been any research linking it to depressive symptoms, which can be described as another internalising disorder.
In “Superhero ideal, authenticity in relationships, and depressive symptoms: A multiple mediation analysis,” published in the June 2022 issue of Acta Psychologica, Theran and co-author Halina Dour, a clinical psychologist, find a direct link between internalising the superhero ideal and an increase in depressive symptoms.
The study recruited 163 seventh and eighth-grade students from a middle school in the Northeast area of the United States, with 46 percent male and 54 percent female. They were between the ages of 12 to 14, and mostly Caucasian/White (84 percent), African American/Black (1 percent), Latino/a (3 percent), Asian (8 percent), Native American (1 percent), and Biracial (3 percent).
According to Theran’s research, young people can get through their depressive symptoms triggered by the superhero ideal by “developing authentic and healthy relationships.”
Theran’s recent research has shown that by developing authentic and healthy relationships, young people can fight the depressive symptoms associated with this superhero ideal.
“No matter how much we try to deemphasize achievement and success to college-age students and encourage them to work on their own intrinsic motivation and well-being, kids are internalising this message that they feel pressure to achieve,” says Theran.
Her findings of young people feeling pressured to perform like superheroes apply not only to her research, but also her day-to-day interactions – many of her students feel they “have to be superheroes.”
Theran and Dour suggest that a way for students to fight the effects of the superhero ideal is to work on establishing authentic relationships with peers, parents and educators. The authors defined authenticity as being able to say what you think and feel.
They also explain that for young people, authenticity with peers may mean something other than authenticity with parents, but as long as the student is being true to themselves, it counts as authentic.
To measure the authenticity of a relationship, Theran says, students can ask themselves, “Does this person make me feel good? Do I feel like I can be myself around this person?”
Theran and her team discovered that students who had authentic relationships were able to navigate the relationship between the superhero ideal and depressive symptoms. The press release notes that “specifically, the link between superhero ideal and depressive symptoms is in part due to the lack of authenticity in these adolescents’ relationships.”
The researchers found that more internalisation of the superhero ideal was linked to less authenticity with parents and peers, and in turn lower levels of authenticity with parents and peers were associated with more depressive symptoms. This is how they explained the mechanism with which authenticity in relationships relates to the superhero ideal and depressive symptoms.
“In college you are more able to have a shift of self,” Theran says. “‘Is this who I am? Is this what I want?’ And you may end up having an identity crisis, but that’s really healthy, in order to figure out who you are.”
Theran observes this effect on students who are just beginning college most markedly. They are often trying to determine what they want to go after and put efforts into, instead of following in the footsteps of their parents and high school teachers. Theran believes that students can overcome such a crisis of identity by finding people with whom they can be their authentic selves. For Theran, honesty is key to building such relationships, whether it be about achievements, failures or confusion.
Theran puts her money where her mouth is: She tries to be her authentic self around her own students. She mentions when a paper gets rejected, for example, or fails to get a grant application approved. “If you are not robotic with your students, then they will genuinely be themselves, too,” says Theran, “and then hopefully they are less likely to feel such superhero pressure in class and in other areas.”
Theran notes that parents and caregivers should be attentive towards external and internal pressures on students to achieve – as their social media use has skyrocketed during the pandemic, and they are exposed to filtered ideals which they “often unfavourably compare with their ‘worst’ selves.”
Parents can help their kids understand how to consume social media, Theran says, by pointing out the use of filters and angles, and reminding them that someone is posting one curated minute of their day, not their whole self. “Encourage your teen to consider, how authentic are people being in their online presentation? And when people espouse authenticity online, it does not mean that they are actually being their true self,” she says. “The very nature of social media encourages internalisation of the superhero ideal while discouraging authenticity, but bolstering authenticity and critical thinking skills can help combat the negative repercussions of the superhero ideal.”
Theran, who has studied authenticity in relationships for 20 years, notes that “limitations of the current study included a small sample size, cross-sectional design, and homogenous participants.”
She and Dour write that “A larger sample would allow further analysis of how gender might differentially affect the mediational model,” adding that it would have been “helpful to have additional information on the composition of adolescents' families; perhaps living with extended family would buffer depressive symptoms or perhaps living with step-parents would be related to the relation between superhero ideal and depressive symptoms.”
“The pandemic really made clear how much relationships mean to us,” Theran points out. “We feel empowered by our friendships. Reaching out and connecting with others can improve our well-being so much.”