The Mental Health Crisis in the C-Suite: A Plea for Courage

Image Credit: Kassandra Estrada

This may be the single most important article I have ever written. For those of you who are struggling with your own emerging or growing mental health challenges, please continue to read the full article. For those of you who have not allowed yourself the vulnerability to accept that you are in an untenable situation, I also ask that you continue reading as well. I was once where you are now. In either case, you are not alone!

Things were difficult, particularly in higher education, which has experienced an eight-year enrollment decline, even before Covid 19 began turning our world upside down. According to the American Psychological Association, Americans were already feeling more stress than at any time since the APA began tracking it due to climate change, mass shootings, and political divisiveness.  Now, with the novel Corona virus, According to the CDC and the National Institute of Mental Health, whatever stress and distress was already in play has been hugely exacerbated by what may become the single greatest challenge to our economy and society since the great depression. While this reality affects everyone in society and everyone in organizations, executive level leaders are burdened with the added challenge of responsibility and accountability for the very survival of organizations themselves—and the health and livelihoods of everyone in them, not to mention the satisfaction and wellbeing of the customers/clients/students/patients etc. served by those organizations and businesses. They are also burdened by even greater stigma around mental health than the population at large!

If you are an executive level leader, you were already statistically likely to be feeling extreme stress and related downstream emotions such as feelings of inadequacy, fear, anger, anxiety, and depression, and physical symptoms such as increased blood pressure, headaches, difficulty concentrating, problems sleeping, decreased appetite, and addiction among others. In fact, if you are an executive and you are not feeling some of these symptoms, you are among a minority of your colleagues. A recent review of literature found that executives are likely to be depressed at double the rate of the general public! And, as noted, due to the absurd cultural and organizational norms applied to senior leaders, who are irrationally supposed to be “bullet proof,” they are more stigmatized for mental health issues than are others, and thus are less likely to even acknowledge, let alone pursue treatment for, mental health challenges. This dynamic is brutal for executives themselves, their organizations, and the people in their personal lives as well. It is also ultimately unsustainable.

As someone who has personally hit the wall and had what in the old days we would have called a “nervous breakdown,” I am making an appeal directly to those of you in senior leadership roles (and anyone else who is suffering from mental health challenges) to take the courageous step of acknowledging the reality and seeking professional help. For those of us who have, as Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, says “reached our limit,” we have been blessed with an opportunity to take a step back, reevaluate our lives, and put ourselves on a sustainable path to mental health and a viable future. Your courage to act will also be a gift to others in your organization who will feel empowered, by your example, to make their own brave decisions about mental health. If you aren’t ready to help yourself from a perspective of self-compassion, then do it from a perspective of how it can support and preserve your professional efficacy and benefit the organization in which you are a leader. For the small minority of executives who are not facing significant stress and related emerging or growing mental health challenges, you have the unique responsibility to empathetically and logistically support those who do.

Unfortunately, I ignored my own situation until I was in crisis and no longer able to function at a desirable level, either professionally or personally. While hitting rock bottom has its advantages in terms of having nothing to lose, I can tell anyone who finds themselves nearing their “limit” that acting sooner rather than later is a smarter path. What is incredibly ironic is that if any of us were in a car wreck and suffered physical injuries, we would not only openly acknowledge them, we would be immediately treated with all available surgeries, medications, and therapies because that’s what we do with physical injuries and health issues. In fact, we would actually receive public sympathy and support for our injuries! Not only does our psychological health deserve the same respect, we simply cannot be whole, healthy people without supporting mind and body equally. And, critically, we must have the insight, vulnerability and courage to accept that just as our physical health is influenced by our lives outside of work, each one of us brings a legacy of psychological issues to the workplace that influence our work selves and are influenced by our work lives. I personally sacrificed years of mental health and compromised my personal relationships because I did not allow myself the vulnerability, and the thus the courage, to admit that I was not bullet proof. As most executives do, I tragically mistook vulnerability for weakness and I paid a steep price. While I am now on a sustainable path that supports even greater efficacy for myself as a leader as well as health in my personal life, stigma and ignorance robbed me of precious time and wellbeing. If you are among the majority of leaders who are being compromised by the same stigma and ignorance, I hope you find the courage that is inside you to do the right thing. If you already have, then congratulations for honoring your vulnerability. In either case, you, and those around you, are unquestionably better off acknowledging your challenges and supporting your mental health than not. And, importantly, honest, vulnerable, authentic leaders are better leaders, so you will benefit professionally as well.

Footnote

While the challenges noted in this article affect everyone, there are additional complicating factors based on gender that further compromise our efficacy and mental health. As noted in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “In a long-hours work culture, men have one primary identity: that of an ideal worker, fully committed and fully available. To fit this image, they must adopt the psychological stance of ‘my job is all-important.’ Nonwork identities, no matter how personally meaningful, become contingent and secondary.” My own wholesale dedication to work-based identity and self-worth proved to be disastrous and unsustainable. It also came at the cost of “nonwork identities” and relationships.

For women, the same HBR article notes that, “according to the work/family narrative and broader cultural notions, their commitment to family is primary by nature, so their commitment to work has to be secondary. They are expected to embrace an intensive, ‘my family is all-important’ approach to parenting… but a family-first stance comes at a significant cost to their careers and flies in the face of their professional ambitions.” It is a classic no-win situation.

In short, for decades we have perpetuated work-place cultural norms that hurt us professionally, hurt us personally, and mitigate against our mental health. This is a kind of malpractice that, at best, leaders have ignored, and at worst, have perpetuated. Those of us in leadership roles have a moral obligation to change these damaging norms–for ourselves and those we support.

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