The shocking truth about executive mental health

Mental Health Awareness

May is mental Health Awareness Month, observed since 1949. This seems like a great springboard to get people talking and thinking more about mental health and leadership. Therefore, for the rest of the month my blog posts will speak about this.

Because leadership is hard work that requires immense sacrifice, many times CEOs are treated like heroes to celebrate or gods to worship. This mode of thinking perpetuates the pressures put on CEOs to be superhuman, and conceal their vulnerabilities and challenges behind closed doors, with some times fatal consequences. But when the cameras aren’t rolling, the immense pressures of the job and the psychological extremes needed to get there start to reveal themselves. 

It seems that leaders are not excluded from having mental illness. In fact, the shocking truth is that they might be at a larger risk for mental health issues. In a recent scholarly review, Jayne Barnard reports that “Science shows that the pressures of leading at the top exhibit themselves in recurring pathologies in CEOs—narcissism, over-optimism, fear, anxiety, anger, obsessive compulsive disorder and depression.” Barnard points out that some studies have shown that in fact CEOs may be depressed at more than double the rate of the general public.

In his book Moppin’ Floors to CEO, Miller states that “High-powered individuals often do not want to admit vulnerability, and depression is unfortunately viewed as a weakness.”

Let's look at some numbers that might surprise you.

Prevalence of Mental Health issues among leaders

According to a study by Jonathan Davidson of the Duke University Medical Center and colleagues, who reviewed biographical sources for the first 37 presidents of the USA (1776-1974), half of those men had been afflicted by mental illness—and 27% met those criteria while in office.

According to Finds LifeWay and Focus on the Family, Nearly 1 in 4 pastors (23 percent) acknowledge they have “personally struggled with mental illness,” and half of those pastors said the illness had been diagnosed.

In a recent study, psychologist and psychology professor Michael Freeman researched mental health conditions among entrepreneurs. Of the 242 entrepreneurs surveyed, 49% reported struggling with a mental health condition. Depression ranked as the #1 reported condition, and was present in 30% of participants. (Compare that to the U.S. population in general, where only 7% report themselves as depressed).

According to a survey of Vistage (an international organization for CEOs), 100 percent of 2,400 participating CEOs are suffering stress. CEO stress can come from external sources, like an uncertain economy. CEO stress can also come from your body and mind.  Stress, while a great motivator, can disable your thinking and creativity, which are the keys to leadership.  Stress can also harm your mental and physical health and emotions.   To some extend, a par of how to be a CEO is learning how to manage CEO stress. 

Mental Health and Addictions

Mental health disorders and addiction often go hand-in-hand, but their prevalence amongst executives may be particularly high due to the unique path co-occurrence takes for this population. Unfortunately, executives may also be especially likely to avoid treatment by hiding behind their success, keeping them from getting the help they need. The medical establishment recognizes that substance abuse often arises as a form of self-medication. The problem is that in the long run it only makes mental health issues worst.

The diagnostic criteria of mental illnesses all share one thing in common: they cause distress and loss of normal function. And many executives cope with that distress by turning to drugs or alcohol, resulting in co-occurring disorders that push you deeper into danger.

Although there are no studies yet specifically focused on the prevalence of executives with mental illness and co-occurring addiction, clinicians believe that executives as a group may be particularly prone to psychological distress and self-medication for both lifestyle and personality reasons.

At the most basic level, a busy work schedule with poor work-life balance can leave little room for basic self-care activities such as exercise, good nutrition, forging meaningful personal relationships, and simply relaxing. The lack of self-care in turn can compound pre-existing emotional distress and leave you vulnerable to substance abuse. Taking a pill, having a drink, snorting a line is fast and easy, much more so than carving out meaningful space for self-care.

There is also a more deeply-rooted and less easily solved reason for the high rate of co-occurrence: you are used to being in control. Rather than turn to outside sources of help, such as psychiatrists, therapists, or even family and friends, you believe you can manage your own emotional and behavioral turbulence. After all, managing is what you do best.

“Many executives and professionals spend their entire work lives devoted to managing: managing work, managing resources, managing people, managing information, even managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors,” write O’Connell and Bevvino in their book, Managing Your Recovery from Addiction: A Guide for Executives, Senior Managers, and Other Professionals. And so you believe you can control your mental illness—and when you find your drug of choice, you believe you can control your drug use, too. And for a while, perhaps you can.

Hiding Behind Success

One of the reasons executives with mental health disorders and co-occurring addiction often evade treatment is that you are often more successful than most in denying your own struggle. When your work is the central focus in your life, it is easy to measure your own stability and even your self-worth by your professional success—if you’re getting it done at work, things must be okay.

Shortcomings and conflicts in your personal life (which may be stretched thin to begin with) can be easily explained away and your high professional standing taken as proof that you are fine, even thriving. “It is a well-known fact that with most executives and professionals, job performance is usually the last area of life to be affected by the deleterious impact of [mental illness and] addiction,” write O’Connell and Bevvino. “This continued feeling of ‘power’ in the workplace reinforce our denial.”

Staying afloat professionally when you’re struggling with mental illness and addiction is a tricky game and, eventually, you lose. Self-medication may temporarily satiate you, but it never resolves the underlying condition you are trying to ease, and soon your substance use pairs with your mental illness to create deeper suffering for both you and those around you.

The longer you keep yourself from getting the help you need to recover, the further you fall into emotional and behavioral danger and the harder it will be to come back. In the end, your intelligence, your work ethic, your professional success cannot protect you from phenomena that are larger than yourself.

But you don't have to suffer alone. Although you are used to self-sufficiency and self-reliance, recovering from mental illness and addiction requires the support of a community of expert clinicians, family, and compassionate peers who can guide you toward healing with compassion and dignity.

In our next blog post we will talk about what can be done to keep and treat mental health at the executive level.

Remember. . .

As an executive you could often times experience emotional, relational and psychological problems on a greater level due to unique life stressors, being in the public eye, or similar things.  Whether it has to do with matters of anxiety, depression or burnout for instance, as opposed to more external matters such as personal/professional relationship breakdowns, executive & life coaching or even private couples retreats can help alleviate or enhance mental health issues. Don't wait until you are in crisis! Look for help sooner rather than later.

P. S.  

Dr. Ada Gonzalez provides customized and cutting-edge mental health & coaching solutions. By integrating advanced neurotechnology with more effective methods in how the human mind instills patterns of change on a long-term level, the scope of services offered is simply phenomenal!

Dr. Ada services are specifically tailored for those requiring privacy and fluid scheduling on a “we-come-to-you” basis, providing highly effective growth paths for her clients, in an innovative and well-researched manner.

Learn to change THE WAY you change!

CONTACT Dr. Ada today to find the help you need.