Perfectionism as a mediator of psychological distress: Implications for addressing underlying vulnerabilities to the mental health of medical students

Med Teach. 2020 Aug 17;1-7. doi: 10.1080/0142159X.2020.1805101. Online ahead of print.


Objective: Medical students have personalities that are often shown to be perfectionistic. Perfectionism can manifest as maladaptive and lead to psychological distress. This study examined the mediating role of perfectionism on the association between personality trait profiles and levels of psychological distress.

Methods: First-year medical students completed a questionnaire containing measures of personality, perfectionism (Concern over Mistakes: CoM), stress, anxiety and depression. Latent profile analysis classified students based on their personality traits and identified a profile vulnerable to psychological distress. Structural equation models examined the mediation effects of perfectionism on the relationship between the vulnerable personality profile and distress.

Results: The sample totalled 376 (84% response). The vulnerable personality profile was highest in Harm Avoidance, lowest in Self-Directedness, and significantly correlated with the highest Perfectionism-CoM. High Perfectionism-CoM was associated with the highest levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Perfectionism-CoM was a significant mediator for the relationship between personality and higher levels of psychological distress.

Conclusion: Certain personality profiles are predisposed to psychological distress such as anxiety, stress and depression. Perfectionism, as a mediator between personality and psychological distress, may be a target strategy to help increase students' self-acceptance, and self-awareness of their perfectionistic tendencies and lower their vulnerability to poor mental health.

Keywords: Medical education research; continuing; medicine; student support; trends.