Leadership Blog

Here’s How to Deal With Mental Health From the C-Suite

Driven leaders push themselves. That’s their hallmark. They’re the first ones in the door and the last ones to leave. They’re up for meetings and checking emails — no matter what the clock says. Yet, leaders carry a huge burden: the inability to tell anyone if they’re struggling, and especially with their mental health.
 
In fact, the stigma around conditions such as anxiety and depression disproportionally affects not just leaders, but female leaders. CEO depression rates outstrip national averages, and about 15 million adults experience depression, with women being twice as likely to deal with this mental health issue than men. Nevertheless, women executives often hesitate to talk about or address their problems.
 
Why the hesitation? Chalk it up to the old assumption that people with mental health issues can’t achieve as much as their neurotypical counterparts. High-performing women also tend to struggle with impostor syndrome, or the feeling that they don’t really belong with the rest of their peers. And if they admit to having any kind of mental health condition, they assume that they’ll be looked down upon and perhaps lose the career they’ve worked tirelessly to build.
 
As a result, they decide to just plug along. After all, that’s what they’re good at and how they got to the top. They forge ahead, trying to deal with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety through diet, exercise, and other lifestyle-related remedies. They learn to act cheerful and resist complaining. However, they know they’re only fooling the outside world. Inside, they’re desperately trying to deal with the stressors that come from trying to hide a natural — and common — chemical imbalance of the brain.
 
Why Mental Health Matters to Me
 
How do I know so much about the fatigue, uncertainty, and helplessness attached to being a woman leader with a mental health issue? I’ve lived with depression for much of my life.
 
Growing up with a mother who was chronically ill fueled my already-present depression and some unhealthy coping mechanisms. Rather than talking about my emotions, I internalized them. I hung out with friends. I was at the head of my classes. No one could tell I was under the weight of a mental cloud.
 
The story of my depression has a positive ending. From college until now, I have worked with professionals to address my mental health. Though the pandemic caused me to backslide — like so many others — I feel like I’m on the upswing and moving toward a good place mentally.
 
Hope is always on the horizon. If you’re a doer, a go-getter, or a Type A leader with a mental health issue like me, make today the day you start getting real help and improve your mental health. Below are some suggestions based on my experience:
 
1. Talk to your doctor.
Your doctor can’t help you if you aren’t upfront about your problems. You’d go to a medical professional if you thought you had shingles or angina. Why not make an appointment to discuss your mental health?
 
Although primary care physicians aren’t trained to provide therapy, they can refer you to counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists. They can also prescribe medications if necessary.
 
Over time and with professional assistance, you can start to improve your mental health little by little. Believe me when I say that talk therapy isn’t what you imagine from a Hollywood perspective. With the right person, it’s a rewarding journey to figuring out how to better your life.
 
2. Try not to catastrophize.
Leaders have a habit of thinking like chess players. That is, they try to anticipate every move that could possibly happen. This can be an exceptionally profitable trait. At the same time, it can lead to emotional fatigue due to catastrophizing.
 
When you catastrophize, you play into your worst fears. In other words, you allow your mind and emotions to react to things that haven’t occurred — and might never occur. Rehearsing would-be stressors can keep you from making smart decisions, building relationships, or even getting a good night’s sleep.
 
There’s no one way to tamp down catastrophizing, so try several methods to land on the solution that works for you. Some people like to write down worst-case scenarios. On paper, the scenarios often seem more far-fetched than they do in the mind. Others talk to trusted family, friends, and colleagues when they become overwhelmed or overcome with worry. Through trial and error, you’ll figure out what works best for you and reduce some unnecessary stressors in your life.
 
3. Define a healthy bandwidth.
As a leader, you’re going to put in extreme hours some weeks. That’s just part of the job. With that being said, you can’t operate at 100 miles per hour 24/7 without emotional fallout. Therefore, you need to start gauging your own bandwidth.
 
For instance, you might want to block off hours in your calendar weekly. Devote that time to self-care, not work. Don’t apologize for needing a little “me time.” Taking back control will help you reset yourself mentally and emotionally. Plus, you’ll be able to come back to the job refreshed rather than depleted.
 
Remember that your preferred capacity will be different from another person’s. That’s OK. Find your sweet spot in terms of weekly hours worked and figure out how to stay within it to give your mind a break.
 
Running on fumes can sometimes work in the short term. But it isn’t a long-term strategy for success — particularly if you’re someone who battles a mental health issue. Believe me when I tell you that your world will be brighter when you get the help you deserve to work on your mental health.
 
 

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