4 Lessons I Learned Coping With Depression in the C-Suite

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For many people, the American dream includes the corner office and the title of CEO.

Unfortunately, too many people put in the hard work and long hours to get to the C-Suite, only to find themselves struggling with depression and anxiety once they get there. Although the jury is out as to whether high-achieving individuals are predisposed to depression or if the pressures of high-level responsibility are likely to bring it on, all agree that there is a high rate of depression in our executive offices.

Some estimate that a whopping 50 percent of CEOs have suffered from depression at some point in their lives. Others place the rate at double the national level of 20 percent. Either way, it’s a statistic I’m glad I didn’t know about when I began my journey from hopelessness to happiness and, yes, success of the corner-office variety.

At the age of 20, I checked myself into a psychiatric institution and began the long road to recovery from depression. I had managed to graduate at the bottom of my high school class and couldn’t pay a four-year college to admit me. When I was 24, my abusive father threw me out of the house. I lived at the YMCA and a boarding house with other transients, supporting myself by cleaning bathrooms at the local Ramada Inn.

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Determined to turn my life around, I focused on earning an education, beginning where I could, with an open-admission community college, and kept at it until I graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers University and then with honors and a master's degree from Columbia University. I worked my way through various posts in the health care industry and at 49, I was appointed president and CEO of a major medical center.

It was a heck of a journey. Along the way, I learned that regardless of one’s past or present life circumstances, everyone can achieve real success, the kind that includes a rewarding career, loving relationships and a healthy outlook on life. Here are a few lessons I learned:

1. Depression is not a character flaw.

It can be the result of life trauma, loss or grief, and/or biochemistry. The stress of leading a company can aggravate the symptoms of depression, and it can bring anxiety into the mix. This is not a reflection of your management ability. It is a natural response to weighty responsibilities. Even Abraham Lincoln, one of history’s greatest leaders, suffered from depression.

2. It takes courage and strength to seek professional help.

We leadership types don’t always like to ask for help but, trust me on this, it is the most important action you can take when depression hits. Think of it this way: If you were diagnosed with high blood pressure, you’d get medical help and take your medicine, right? Your family, your employees, customers, suppliers, investors and community are counting on you. You owe it to yourself and to them to keep yourself mentally, as well as physically, healthy.

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3. Think of your emotional health as an ongoing investment.

For me, and I suspect for many others, depression is not a one-and-done proposition. It is a part of life’s ups and downs. Build your own personal team of mental health professionals and service providers so that you can get the support you need when you need it.

4. Don't let depression derail your success.

Don’t let depression derail your path to success, and don’t let it derail the professional life you’ve worked so hard to build. When you are struggling with depression and anxiety, otherwise straightforward decisions and tasks can become overwhelming. The tough decisions and difficult tasks become impossible. This is bad for you, bad for your employees and bad for your company.

When I took on leadership of the medical center, I needed to significantly raise the bar for our organization’s performance. It was up to me to generate positivity in every area of operations, from surgery to building maintenance, even as significant programmatic and staff changes were being implemented. I needed to be on my game every day, and sometimes that meant that I needed to check in with my therapist so that the pressure didn’t overtake my desire to succeed in my new role.

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Taking decisive action in this area of your life will not only improve your own wellbeing, it will set a great example for the people around you. As a corporate leader and role model, your positive approach to dealing with depression will reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. You may even inspire a troubled colleague or employee to seek much-needed help.

If that isn’t enough reason to treat your mental health as a priority, then consider this: Good mental health is good for business.

Clear thinking, productive relationships, and positive energy are critical ingredients of a successful business. I’ve had several leadership roles since my days at the medical center, and I can tell you that my state of mind drives the success of every venture I undertake.

The good news is that no one, especially a business leader like you, needs to suffer from depression. Excellent, highly effective treatments for depression are widely available. Take advantage of what modern medicine has to offer as readily as you take advantage of the latest technological advance. Not only will you find greater success, you’ll get to enjoy it too.