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Why Mental Illness and Success Are Not Incompatible

Since the inception of this blog, you might imagine the number of conversations I’ve been having has increased dramatically. And you’d be right. Notwithstanding my constant jabbering about it, I’ve had family, friends and old friends, colleagues, ex-colleagues, even people I don’t know, reaching out with their kind words of encouragement. I’m also seeing people around me beginning to share their own stories with me, and with others. This is fantastic to see and I sincerely hope this upward trend continues.

But I received a message from someone recently (we’ll call him Steve for now) which really stood out to me. He’s a budding business psychologist, who told me the following:

“I have suffered for a long time with similar issues, and it gives me a lot of belief that there are successful people out there who have navigated the minefield, and continue to do so. Indeed the fact you are in the exact field I want to get into gives me more belief.”

On one level this kind of stuff is music to my ears. It gives me great motivation to keep writing these posts. It also strokes my (not insignificant) ego, much to the vexation of those close to me. Unfortunately for them, I’m not very good at hiding my smugness.

More importantly, however, this message raises a gnarly question which many people like Steve and myself spend a lot of time asking ourselves. That question goes a little something like this:

“How can I continue to lead a normal life while carrying my mental health problem?”

This question may take less positive forms:

“What if I can’t continue to lead a normal life while carrying my mental health problem?”

Worse still, it turns into a statement:

“I can’t lead a normal life while carrying my mental health problem”

If we’re not careful, it can turn into a mindset:

“There’s no point trying to lead a normal life while carrying my mental health problem”

It’s pretty obvious to see how this could be a harmful mindset which feeds our depression and anxiety, diminishes self-belief and deepens our sense of stigma. We fear both that:

  • Our problem will limit us in the future, causing us to miss out on the things that we need and want from life.

  • Others will see our problem as a sign of weakness, will discriminate against us or distance themselves from us. This could mean that we lose the love of our family, partner and friends, the respect of our colleagues, and our future opportunities in work, romance, parenthood and beyond.

And who could blame us for feeling this way? The Mental Health Foundation says nearly nine out of ten people with mental health problems say that stigma and discrimination have a negative effect on their lives. A Time to Change report from 2004 said that fewer than 4 in 10 employers would consider hiring a person with a mental health problem. Granted attitudes may have shifted in the last 14 years, but you get the idea.

I should count myself lucky then, to find myself in an environment where in general, my mental health problems are accepted. I have found myself able to be open with my bosses and colleagues. So far, I have only met with empathy, understanding and praise for opening up about things. I even speak to some of my clients about it. I hope this continues, although I have made peace with myself that I am doing the right thing, should I run into adverse attitudes. Being able to talk about things at work really helps. I try not to use it as an excuse but to be able to sometimes say “can I just take it a bit easier this week” or “it would really help me if…” is hugely important.

Katherine, my fiancée, has been incredible, both in her acceptance of my challenges and her support and encouragement, as well as providing a much-needed kick up the arse from time to time too. My friends tend to be cool with it. When I told him that I’d had been diagnosed with OCD, my best mate just laughed, rolled his eyes and told me how he just kind of expected this sort of thing with me these days. And I can’t dish out enough praise to my parents for their acceptance and support.

Living in this kind of environment has enabled me to take more and more risks in opening up, to the point that I am able to write this blog so candidly. I now feel confident talking to people about my mental health as if it weren’t ‘A Big Deal’. OK - of course it can feel like A Big Deal to live with mental health challenges but talking about it shouldn’t. And it has taken a long of time for me to reach this point. I doubt the majority of people living with mental health problems feel quite as comfortable admitting their whole truth so publicly. Sharing our vulnerabilities still means risking rejection and alienation - something we know that will at least hurt our feelings, and is likely to have an impact on our lives and the ways we view ourselves.

Are public attitudes really that bad?

Probably not. Attitudes towards mental health are changing in a positive direction, owing to fantastic campaigns like Time to Change. But even if perceptions are changing, there is still a shortage of dialogue about mental health. In the absence of this conversation, the void is too easily filled with the voices that say “it’s not OK to talk about this”. This is especially pertinent in a Western society which increasingly values the ideas of performance, success, and the need to be tough or resilient. It means we all go to great ends to cover up our vulnerabilities and ensure we are not seen as lacking the hallowed resilience for fear of the consequences. This does not help us when we are not feeling well.

I’m not trying to say that the idea of resilience doesn’t retain merit. It is super-important to support people to develop the skills to self-manage when the pressure is on. But in the same breath, our culture, society and leaders need to recognise the role we have when people don’t have the resources to cope. We also need to recognise that supporting peoples’ capacity to stay on top of things can’t be used as an excuse to pile on ever greater levels of pressure. And mostly we need to recognise that resilience isn’t some kind of all or nothing virtue which needs to be mastered in order to lead a successful life.

In case you are short on evidence, let’s think about the volume of successful people who live with a mental health challenge of some kind. I’d say around 1 in 3 managers I work with currently exhibit symptoms of mental health issues. This ranges from people who are 'worriers' or have low self-esteem, all the way through to those on the verge of, or recovering from, a significant episode of mental illness. Some of these are among the best people I have ever met.

Further still, there are rafts of people who have lived with mental health problems and still achieved enormous success. A select list of 10 of these heroes includes:

  • Sir Winston Churchill – needs no introduction – lived through bouts of depression he called his ‘Black Dog’

  • Stephen Fry – comedian, writer, actor, national treasure – lives with Bipolar disorder and has survived suicide attempts

  • Alastair Campbell – Labour spin doctor under Tony Blair, love him or hate him – was hospitalised with depression

  • Aaron Lennon – Premiership footballer for Burnley – was detained under the mental health act only last year

  • Antonio Horta Osorio - CEO of Lloyd’s Banking Group – was admitted to the Priory in 2011 with severe insomnia related to work stress

  • Adele – Songbird and song writer – lived with depression early in her career

  • JK Rowling – Author of Harry Potter – lived with depression and used it as the inspiration for the Dementors in her books

  • Michael Phelps – most decorated Olympian of all time with a casual 23 Olympic gold medals and 39-time World Record breaker – lived through several spells of depression during the prime of his career and contemplated suicide

  • Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – American footballer, WWF wrestler and movie star – recently came out about his history of Depression

  • Frank Bruno – WBC champion – was sectioned twice in 2003.

Churchill's home at Chartwell

In fact, I’d be willing to wager that some of the traits that have factored in these peoples’ mental illnesses have also helped them to be successful. I will even go as far as to suggest that mental illness can be a source of great strength, and resilience, for that matter. But perhaps I’ll leave that for another blog.

The identities, personalities and makeup of these people add richness and diversity to the fabric of humanity. I imagine that these people will have both needed, and found, support for their problems which will have helped them on their journey. Being in an environment which allowed them to be open about it to someone will have been crucial so that they could make their unique contributions to society.

Get to the point, Gillespie!

The point I’m trying to make here is that mental illness, or a lack of mental wellbeing, is just normal. Just like cancer, marriage, divorce, death, diabetes, IBS, getting promoted and getting sacked, it’s a normal part of the human condition.

That is not to say that severe depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or any other mental health condition is something we should just blindly accept and not seek a cure for. But it is to say that it is the norm. A phrase I commonly use is “everyone’s not OK”. For some of us, this is about our mental health; for others it is something entirely different but most of us live imperfect lives and that should be OK to admit to.

What I’m also trying to say is that the ultra-competitive culture we live in, which celebrates individuality and self-sufficiency, can be counter-productive when it comes to helping us to be successful. This is seen again and again in the world of elite sport. Here’s an example.

So where do we go from here?

Whether we live with a mental health problem; support someone with a mental health problem; or have the good fortune not to be touched by mental illness at all but still care, we are all start of the same big picture. So, we need to:

  • Challenge the pervasive belief that “The most vulnerable people aren’t capable of success”

  • Work hard to ensure that people feel able to talk about their mental wellbeing with openness and honesty.

And here are some of the things you can do to get started:

  1. Start talking about mental health as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Have a degree of sensitivity with people who have, or care for those who have mental health problems. But you don’t need to pussy-foot around it. Chances are they will be pleased you asked, so long as you show the ability to suspend judgement about it.

  2. Consider where you might sit on the spectrum of mental health. Just because you aren’t ‘ill’ doesn’t mean you are ‘well’. This might not be directly related to your mental health. But being able to say “sometimes I feel grumpy because of my diabetes” or “I’m tired because I need to support my depressed partner” might be just as powerful.

  3. Take a brave step and start to share your own vulnerabilities, especially if you are in a position of influence. Being able to say “you know what, sometimes I don’t feel OK, and here is why” opens the door to others to talk about it too. And you might just be pleasantly surprised at the reactions you get.

  4. Flip your attitudes about mental health problems on their head and ask “what strength can this person draw from their mental health challenges?” Many people with mental health problems have been through a lot. This can make them more sensitive, perceptive, strong, thoughtful, determined, empathetic, authentic or appreciative – all enormously valuable skills for the 21st Century.

Perhaps then, more people like Steve would show belief that they can live successful lives, too.


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