It doesn’t take long to assemble an impressive list of successful people who also struggle with mental illness. Comedian/actor Jim Carrey experienced clinical depression, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling also combatted depression, entrepreneur/business mogul/founder of CNN Ted Turner lives with bipolar disorder, accomplished athlete Herschel Walker revealed he has dissociative identity disorder, and Brian Wilson of Beach Boys fame has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.
Statistics pile onto the correlation between mental illness and success. A 2008 study published in the University of Cincinnati Law Review suggests that CEOs may be at twice the risk of developing depression compared to the general population. University of California San Francisco researcher Dr. Michael Freeman found in 2015 that 49 percent of entrepreneurs who started a company have experienced a mental illness. The organization Help Musicians UK found in a 2016 survey that 71.1 percent of musicians reported panic attacks or anxiety while 68.5 percent struggled with depression.
Whether they’re savvy businesspeople, creative artists and writers, or high-performing individuals, why do so many successful people struggle with mental illness? The answer may pose a bit of a chicken and the egg conundrum — which came first? The mental illness or the success?
Connecting Success and Mental Illness
When we look closer, one reason that mental illness and high achievement might go hand-in-hand has to do with what it takes to be successful in the first place.
“Many of the characteristics needed to be a successful entrepreneur align with some symptoms of mental illness,” Dr. Crystal I. Lee, owner of LA Concierge Psychologist, tells Talkspace. “For example, those with bipolar disorder think big and reach for the stars. They can be visionaries that think outside of the box and create highly ambitious goals and plans.”
Accordingly, qualities that describe a great entrepreneur or creative person, someone willing to take the risks often necessary to achieve success, overlap with mental health conditions. Freeman, as a result of his study, identifies for CNN “creativity, extroversion, open-mindedness and a propensity for risk” as some of these characteristics. Dr. David Linden, a neuroscience professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Medicine, adds to the list in Forbes, “obsession, dedication, novelty-seeking, [and] strong drive for success.”
Many of these same traits are hallmarks of a variety of mental illnesses and addictions, such as obsession with obsessive-compulsive disorder or risk and novelty-seeking with bipolar disorder. Though having these characteristics of course doesn’t always signal a mental health condition, in some cases they could be the very reason people with mental illnesses excel at their chosen calling.
“As we can see with some highly successful people, people can absolutely thrive while struggling with their mental health,” says Lee. “It’s important to see that they’re able to be successful because their environment capitalizes on the individual’s strengths…It’s a matter of the environment (i.e., job) matching the strengths of the individual.”
Pressures of Success
There’s more to the story, however. Success comes with a price, whether it’s high-stakes financial responsibility, performance expectations, or a level of fame and public scrutiny. All that stress and pressure on top of growing demands can lead straight to the beginnings of larger issues.
“On a practical level, it’s very difficult to balance a demanding career and your well-being,” Melody Wilding, a licensed social worker and career coach who works with high-achievers, tells Talkspace. “As you rise higher, you also face greater pressure to perform, which can lead to self-doubt. The flip side of being smart and accomplished is that it’s easy to fall into traps of overthinking and worrying.”
Success can also breed isolation and self-neglect. When a business venture really takes off, it requires a lot of time and headspace to manage. That can push aside many of the social connections and centering moments that would otherwise support our mental health.
“When you start having elitist big jumps upwards, then things change,” psychologist Deborah Serani told Forbes. “There’s a lot of disconnect from simple things, like sitting down for dinner with your family…That’s the stuff that brings texture and joy to life, and people may lose a lot of that richness when they’re consumed with a business 24/7.”
If left unchecked, the balance between success and mental health may tip from stress and burnout to a full-blown mental illness.
“Being at the top meant there is little time for self-care, family time, or moments of stillness — a recipe for burnout,” says Lee. “The incredible stress of being a successful person can actually trigger episodes of mental illness.”
The Stigma of Getting Help
Getting help for mental illness still carries a stigma across the board, but for successful people who feel pressure to stay on top, admitting it’s time to get help can be an even bigger hurdle. This may be another reason why so many successful people struggle with mental illness.
“People who are highly accomplished fear being perceived as weak or incapable. They pride themselves on being able to ‘do it all’ — it’s part of their identity,” says Wilding. “Because of this, they tend to have a harder time asking for help. They tell themselves to toughen up and work harder, which only makes things worse.”
Still, for those who are struggling, it’s critical to reach out for help. A mental health professional is best equipped to help us heal and get our stride back. Mental illness isn’t usually something we can or should handle alone. And though access to quality mental health care has a financial barrier for many, those who are successful may face others treatment challenges.
“It’s harder for them to access quality care. They don’t necessarily have time to go out and see a therapist, and they end up suffering in silence,” says Lee, who runs a concierge practice.
Whether it’s the fact that successful careers favor characteristics shared with many mental illnesses, the stress and pressure of success itself, or the strong stigma against seeking help, there’s also an opportunity to revolutionize the way we think about mental health as a society. Personal disclosure is always a choice, but when successful people open up about their own struggles, it can have a big impact on those around us.
“When people see people who are leaders in their industry harnessing their illness’ strengths and/or rising above the struggles, it gives people another understanding of what it means to live with mental illness,” says Lee. “It gives people hope and it humanizes the struggle for those who don’t struggle and never have. It’s no longer this scary thing; it’s a person they know of and might even admire.”
As for how we can support those who are successful navigate mental illness — and all of us who struggle with anything, really — it may just come down to re-defining what success means.
“For too long I think we have defined success in terms of status and money alone,” Wilding says. “But true success is being comfortable in your own skin and understanding who you are.”
Those are words of wisdom we can get behind.
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