What is the definition of duck syndrome?
Duck syndrome, also referred to as the Stanford duck syndrome or ugly duckling syndrome, is not formally recognized as a mental illness but refers to a phenomenon that has primarily been described in college students. Specifically, it is thought to afflict students who are overly invested in looking like they have it all together, and like a duck, appear to be calm and placid on a superficial level but are paddling frantically to "stay above water" in terms of meeting the academic, social, and community demands of getting a college education or beyond. Duck syndrome seems to be one way that depression, anxiety, or the initial stages of many mental illnesses can appear (manifest), usually in reaction to stress. Due to the known potentially devastating consequences of depression or anxiety, duck syndrome should be taken quite seriously and aggressively treated.
What are causes and risk factors for duck syndrome?
Specific risk factors for duck syndrome are thought to include many aspects of the college experience, including living away from family for the first time, a significant increase in academic and extracurricular demands compared to high school, as well as the social pressure associated with attending college. Additional theories about potential risk factors and causes of duck syndrome include the pressure that social media can place on young adults to appear to be achieving effortless perfection as a student despite all of the pressures thereof. Family risk factors that are thought to be specific for duck syndrome include a tendency to be demanding and highly competitive, placing high value on perfection, and parents who are overly protective of children such that the children have minimal experience with disappointment, resilience, and at accepting their challenges as well as their strengths. Such a parenting style is sometimes referred to as helicopter parenting, in that the parents tend to hover and excessively intervene in their children's lives.
Given the likely relationship between duck syndrome and mental illnesses, particularly with depression and anxiety, the risk factors for those conditions should be considered to be predisposing factors for duck syndrome, as well. Like most emotional conditions, the depression and/or anxiety associated with duck syndrome does not tend to have one specific cause. Rather, people with this condition usually have a number of biological, psychological, and environmental contributors to its development. Biologically, depression, anxiety, and therefore perhaps duck syndrome can be associated with abnormal levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, a smaller size of some areas of the brain, and increased activity in other parts of the brain. Girls and women are more likely to be given a diagnosis of depression and many anxiety disorders compared to boys and men, but that is thought to be due to, among other things, biological differences based on gender and differences in how females are encouraged to interpret their experiences and respond to them compared to males. There is thought to be at least a partially genetic component, and people with a depressed or anxious parent are more likely to also develop the disorders. These issues are therefore likely to pertain to the development of duck syndrome.
As with the previously described contributors to the development of duck syndrome, psychological contributors to depression and anxiety include perfectionism, low self-esteem, negative body image, being excessively self-critical, and often feeling helpless when dealing with negative events. People who suffer from conduct disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or who have cognitive or learning problems, as well as trouble engaging in social activities also are have more risk of developing depression and anxiety so should be considered at potentially higher risk for developing duck syndrome.
Like other manifestations of depression and anxiety, duck syndrome may be a reaction to life stresses that predispose a person to developing any mental illness. Examples of such risk factors may include trauma, like being the victim of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse; exposure to domestic violence, the death of a loved one, school problems, being bullied, or being exposed to peer pressure. In addition to the more specific risk factors for depression and anxiety previously described, other potential contributors to this condition include poverty, exposure to community violence, social isolation, parental conflicts, divorce, and other causes of family disruptions. Children who have limited physical activity, poor school performance, or lose a relationship are at higher risk for developing depression, anxiety, and therefore to developing duck syndrome, as well.