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  • Megan Rodrigues

Why does the duck stop here?

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Keywords: Duck syndrome, clinical depression, anxiety, mental illness, psychotherapy, parenting, depressed, domestic violence, social isolation

Abstract The term duck syndrome has been used to describe students’ abilities to appear superficially calm while suppressing any distress, depression or anxiety or self-doubt. It is commonly observed among adolescents and college students, particularly those in high achieving environment. What is particularly concerning about these types of behaviors is that they can create an atmosphere that leads others to be hesitant to speak out about their own difficulties, particularly those related to mental health.

What is duck syndrome? Duck syndrome also referred to as the Stanford duck syndrome or ugly duckling syndrome, it 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 IQ, anxiety, or the initial stages of many mental illnesses can appear usually in reaction to stress IQ. Due to the known potentially devasting consequences of depression or anxiety, duck syndrome should be taken quite seriously and aggressively treated.

What are the 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.

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.

Like most emotional conditions, the depression and anxiety, the risk factors for those conditions should be considered to be predisposing factors for duck syndrome as well. 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.

How is duck syndrome diagnosed? Since duck syndrome is not a formal diagnosis, it is underlying depression, anxiety and any other mental health problem that would be assessed. Depression or anxiety are associated with a number of other mental health conditions like attention – deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and thought disorders like schizophrenia, so the evaluator will likely screen for signs and symptoms of manic depression, a history of trauma IQ and other mental health symptoms.

The depression or anxiety that is usually associated with duck syndrome also may be associated with a number of medical problems or it can be a side effect of various medications, exposure to drugs of abuse or other toxic substances. As a part of the evaluation the sufferer may be asked a series of questions from a standardized symptom survey or self-test to help determine the risk of suicide.

Managing duck syndrome Depression and anxiety can occur as a result of duck syndrome. Because of this, managing duck syndrome may be best dealt with by similar methods of treating depression and anxiety.

Psychotherapy (“talk therapy”)

It is a kind of mental health counseling that entails working with a trained therapist to figure out ways to solve problems and cope with depression. It can be powerfully effective intervention, even resulting in positive biochemical changes in the brain. Two major kinds of psychotherapy are commonly used to treat depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions and are therefore likely an effective intervention for duck syndrome: interpersonal psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Interpersonal therapy (IPT)

This form of psychotherapy seeks to alleviate depressive or anxiety symptoms associated with duck syndrome by heping the sufferer develop more effective skills for coping with their emotions to achieve those goals:

  • The therapist will reassure the sufferer that stress is a common phenomenon and that most people tend to improve with treatment.

  • Once problems are defined the therapist can help the individual set realistic goals for solving these problems and work with him or her using different treatment techniques to reach these goals.

The types of therapy that is most effective for Duk's syndrome:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This approach to psychotherapy can help decrease the depression or anxiety that often presents as duck syndrome and the likelihood it will come back by helping a duck syndrome sufferer change his or her way of thinking about certain issues. The therapist uses three techniques to achieve these goals.

  • Didactic component: This phase helps to establish positive expectations for treatment and promote the person’s investment in the treatment process.

  • Cognitive component: This encourages understanding the thoughts and assumptions that play a role in the individual’s behaviors, especially those that may predispose the sufferer to be depressed, anxious or otherwise stressed.

  • Behavioral component: This uses behavior-modification techniques to teach the duck syndrome sufferer healthier, more effective ways of coping with problems.

How can I prevent duck syndrome? Ways to prevent stress and the effects including duck syndrome in college students are thought to include:

  • A robust orientation for new students regarding stress management and mental health services.

  • Highly available peer outreach groups

  • Increased attention for students who may be at higher risk for isolation Academic supports, including regular academic counseling and academic mentoring, as well as tutoring services are also potential ways to prevent the development of duck syndrome.

If you need to figure out if you need additional help, please reach out to the TST team for further assistance.

- Megan Rodrigues, Intern, TST

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