Why Highly Successful People Are Prone to Depression and How They Recover

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Stresses of success can cause depression. Photo credit: Mike Hoff (Creative Commons)

by Therese Borchard

Austen Heinz was a science geek who turned a radical idea—a scientific approach to laser-print DNA–—into a successful company, Cambrian Genomics. A rising star in Silicon Valley, he was gaining media attention when the pressures of entrepreneurial life started a downhill spiral that ultimately led to his suicide at 31 years old.

His story is not unique.

Some research suggests that CEOs may be depressed at more than double the rate of the general public. (According to the National Institute of Health, 6.7 percent of American adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2014.) Other research indicates women with job authority exhibit more depression symptoms than women who are not in charge of anyone.

Psychiatrist Michael Freeman, M.D., Clinical Professor in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry, studies the relationship between entrepreneurship and depression and has a consulting practice focused on entrepreneurship and integrated healthcare system. In a CNN article about Silicon Valley and depression, he said that in a study he conducted nearly half of the entrepreneurs experienced mental health issues at some point in their lives. Why? He believes the personality traits often found in entrepreneurs—creativity, extroversion, open-mindedness, and a propensity for risk—are also traits found with depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse.

Forbes contributing writer Alice Walton penned an interesting piece on why the super successful may get depressed. After interviewing psychologists who have treated the very high-functioning C-suite types, she arrived at six primary reasons why there is more depression among entrepreneurs, CEOs, and highly successful folks:

The competition is wearying

They are constantly comparing themselves to colleagues and other people in the field, measuring their self-worth by whoever seems to be more successful.

Working all the time doesn’t allow them to focus on the simple things

They are consumed with their business 24/7, and even when they do sit down to share a meal with their family, have a difficult time being present. There is a significant disconnect from the simple things that give pleasure.

They may feel detached from their former selves

If wealth or success happens suddenly, it can catapult them to a different kind of lifestyle, not necessarily one that is better suited for happiness.

Privilege may make them less resilient

Sometimes when people have grown up with comfort and wealth, they don’t have the skills to weather difficult times. Often people who have struggled in their childhood years (like the class loser) develop habits that make them more resilient.

The industry can tear them down

Certain industries like finance and technology—which tend to be fratty, boisterous, and young, not to mention extremely competitive–can contribute to depression, especially for the quiet, deep thinker.

Their values may change over time

A certain emptiness sets in when you realize that you are achieving what you set out to achieve and yet you are still not happy. Sometimes when successful people reach an important milestone, depression is common because they are forced to reassess their values.

I agree with all these reasons, but I also think there are some biochemical considerations present in the overachiever some of the time. In another Forbes article, Walton discusses why the brains in high-powered people may be prone to addiction. The same qualities that make for an effective corporate leader—risk-taking, obsession, dedication, novelty-seeking, strong drive for success—are also what contributes to addiction.

David Linden, Ph.D., a neuroscience professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Medicine, who was interviewed in Walton’s article highlights the science behind the addictive brain. “The genetic variations that predispose a person to being an addict seem to be mutations that dampen the dopamine system,” he explains. So the alcoholic needs more and more booze to get the same pleasure from alcohol than, say, someone without a dopamine mutation.

It’s the same with work and success, which can definitely provide a high. While a person without the addictive biochemistry can walk away from her job at the end of the day and sit down to focus on dinner with the family, the addict—and I would add the depressive because we share some of the same creative wiring of the brain, especially when it comes to feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine—needs more and more stimulation to feel okay. Working late into the night might actually be feeding the same centers of the brain as if the person was outside in the woods smoking pot or sipping a third glass of whisky. In some people, working 80-hour weeks serves to quiet the noonday demon on some cellular level.

Business Insider contributor Shane Snow adds another perspective in his piece The Fascinating Reason Many Billionaires Get Depressed (And How They Snap Out of It). He compares sudden success to having someone lift you up to grab onto one of the Olympic rings on the playground. Because you have no momentum, you get stuck in one spot, even if that spot is somewhere far along the chain. The lack of momentum feels like a lack of control.

“Studies show that the wealthy — especially those who fall into it through inheritance or the lottery or sale of a business — are often not happier once they’re rich,” he writes. “A meaningful percentage of them believe that their wealth causes more problems than it solves.” He cites the examples of astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong.

The solution? To again build momentum, even if it is with very small wins.

That’s the good news with highly successful people: They can use the same energy and determination and creativity and smarts toward their recovery as they did to land a corner office or start a dotcom. In a follow-up article to her piece on super-successful people and depression, Walton identifies seven ways highly successful deal with depression:

They develop a GOAL with therapy

Highly successful people are adept at outlining goals, which is a real asset when it comes to therapy.

They’re willing to “go there”

The power crowd is ready to dive into the past and figure themselves out.

They learn to develop meta-awareness of any situation

This group of people is typically intelligent and intuitive; they learn quickly how to identify old traumas and other issues that color a situation.

They learn the dose of treatment that works for them

Everyone is going to have a different treatment program, including or not including therapy, medication, yoga, running, knitting, nutrition, meditating, journaling, and praying. The CEO-type is good at being creative and figuring out what is going to work.

They don’t see depression as a personality flaw

Thankfully, as more celebrities and powerful figures come forward with depression, stigma is fading, especially among the highly successful crowd.

They own the “fake it till you make it approach”

Since executives and powerful folks have had to do a fair amount of problem-solving to get where they are, they are adept at “faking it until you make it,” which can sometimes interrupt the negative thought process that feeds depression.

They figure out that a better way actually does exist

Highly successful people are good at taking risks and seeing potential where others don’t. This dose of optimism, dedication, and perseverance allows them to identify a better way and to take the appropriate steps to get there.

True, highly successful people can use their strengths and skills to manage their mood disorder in order to live full, meaningful lives.

Then again, we all can.

Join Project Hope & Beyond, the new depression community.

Originally posted on Sanity Break.

Therese Borchard is a mental health writer and activist from Annapolis, Maryland.