Fearing that he might take his life by suicide, his friends confiscated his knives, guns, and razors — anything he could use to harm himself.
This leader? None other than Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln called his mental health challenge “melancholy”; today, we would call it a life-threatening depression.
Because of his strength, Lincoln was able to disclose his despondency and received the support he needed from friends and colleagues. If he were alive today, he’d likely be letting others know they are not alone and that getting to the other side of one’s darkest despair is a journey worth taking.
As someone heavily involved in the suicide-prevention movement, I can think of no more compelling call to action to our leaders than to lead boldly about their lived experience with overcoming mental health challenges. Stories of hope and recovery are unparalleled in their ability to shift culture and eliminate the stigma that prevents so many from getting the help that can save lives.
One in four people – at any given time – are experiencing a mental health condition like depression, bipolar illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or substance abuse, and many leaders have experienced these challenges, either firsthand or by supporting someone they love. Yet most leaders remain closeted about these experiences, succumbing to the stigma that keeps us all stuck in isolation and suffering.
This needs to change.
When leaders are able to be vocal, visible and visionary in sharing stories of their own recovery or experiences supporting others, magic happens. When they fight for the mental wellness of people who follow them, leaders can spark the hope that others need.
Yes, there is risk, but the reward of leading the way through this particular darkness is so great. I know. I speak from experience.
I am a clinical psychologist and hold multiple leadership positions in suicide prevention. Yet, after a perfect storm of life stressors, I experienced an episode of major depression in the spring of 2012. It crippled me. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I had daily panic attacks that left me heaving. As I was going through this, I had a parallel process. On one hand, I worried about how bad it would get. After watching my brother Carson spiral down in his ultimately fatal depression, I was scared about my own suicide risk. I was also worried about how my vulnerable state would reflect on my ability to maintain my responsibilities. On the other hand, I believed that not only would I get through the depression eventually but that, when I did, I would publicly share my experience. Four months after I pulled through, I wrote a piece that connected my recovery to running a marathon — persisting through the pain until hope of a new reality emerges. I remember watching my finger hover over the button as I made the final decision to publish it, still worrying about how others would respond. Within minutes, I received support from around the world. People let me know how my transparent testimony gave them hope for their own recovery. I felt for the first time a new level of credibility that comes with vulnerability.
Look at those in major leadership roles who have taken the same risk with the same reward. Just to name a few…
- Former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik spoke candidly about his depression and how ultimately it changed him for the better both as a human being and as a politician. He was elected for a second term.
- Mental health challenges touched icons like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom attempted suicide as teens or young adults and also experienced depression in adulthood. Many credit their angst as the fuel behind the movements they led.
- Former congressman Patrick Kennedy tells his story of bipolar disorder and drug addiction and advocates for legislation to eliminate mental health disparities.
Nassir Ghaemi says in A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness that “the sanest of CEOs may be just right during prosperous times, allowing the past to predict the future. But during a period of change, a different kind of leader — quirky, odd, even mentally ill — is more likely to see business opportunities that others cannot imagine.”
When establishing cultural norms, all eyes are on leadership. If leaders say one thing and yet behave differently, the message is loud and clear. What people experiencing mental health challenges crave are role models who have walked the walk of despair and are now thriving. They want to know there is not only hope of getting to the other side of the long dark night of the soul, but that the struggle will be worth the fight. That perhaps their new insights to recovery, persistence and empowerment will help them achieve their dreams.
Rather than live in fear, leaders can boldly advocate for dignity for people who are experiencing mental health challenges. Leaders’ voices of compassion and courage will help accelerate the tipping of the scale of change and help to save the lives of millions suffering in silence.
It takes great courage to be vulnerable. Everyone is touched by mental health challenges; we just don’t know this about each other. When leaders are able to acknowledge this, compassionately relate their own experiences and call for change, transformation happens.