It’s Time To Talk About Mental Wellness in Leadership

Last week, Senator John Fetterman bravely checked into a mental health facility to get treatment for clinical depression. I use the word “bravely” loosely because I do not believe you need to be brave to get medical treatment. However, when it comes to getting treatment for mental health, many fear getting the help they need.

Last month, New England’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden, shocked the world when she announced that she would resign, citing that she was “simply too worn out to continue.” She said, “You cannot and should not do [her job] unless you have a full tank plus a bit in reserve for those unexpected challenges.” Essentially, Arden was burned out, as many of us are. Luckily, she realized she had reached that point and proactively took drastic measures to protect her mental health. Fetterman and Arden have set an example for what all leaders should consider as they embark on their leadership journies: “how should I be protecting my mental health?”

There is no argument that being in leadership in the past couple of years has been challenging, stressful, and demanding. Across the globe, there has been a global pandemic, a racial reckoning (in the U.S.), wars, significant weather crises, and economic downturns. Even the most competent, capable person would experience difficulty responding to these challenges while maintaining their mental wellness. Unfortunately, many leaders are reluctant to acknowledge, let alone seek, mental health treatment. There are several reasons why there is hesitancy:

  • Stigma: There is still a significant stigma around mental illness, and leaders may worry that seeking treatment for their mental health could be seen as a sign of weakness. This stigma can be particularly pronounced in certain cultures or industries, where leaders are expected to be tough and resilient.
  • Fear of losing control: Leaders may feel that seeking mental health treatment could make them appear less in control or less competent. This fear may be especially acute for leaders who need to project strength and authority to maintain their position.
  • Time constraints: Leaders are often extremely busy, demanding schedules and responsibilities that leave little time for personal care. This can make it difficult for them to prioritize their own mental health and seek treatment.
  • Lack of access: In some cases, leaders may not have access to mental health resources because of financial constraints or the stigma around seeking mental health treatment in their community.

Seeking treatment for mental health or even taking steps to protect their mental health proactively is even more challenging for politicians because their roles are so public. After I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I had a choice of whether or not I would share my diagnosis with my family, friends, colleagues, and peers. Unfortunately, for politicians and other high-profile leaders, that choice is limited. In the past, admitting that you’ve struggled with your mental health has been a deal-breaker. For example, in 1972, Thomas Eagleton was dropped from George McGovern’s ticket when it was revealed that he had received electronic shock therapy to treat his depression. For those politicians who have avoided getting treatment, it has resulted in their mental health conditions negatively impacting their ability to perform their jobs, as was the case of former Rep. Jessie Jackson, Jr., who resigned from Congress back in 2012 so that he could focus on treating his bipolar disorder. Jackson is not the only politician to share their mental health diagnosis only after a public incident.

Lately, we’ve been seeing more and more high-profile leaders discuss their mental health challenges, and we must continue to see more and more of them publicly demonstrate this type of vulnerability. Here’s why. Seeking treatment for mental health is a sign of strength, not weakness, and everyone can benefit from taking care of their mental health. Leaders are responsible for setting an example for others in their organization and prioritizing their team members’ well-being, including their own mental health. If we see more leaders, especially in high-profile positions, talk about their mental health, the positive outcomes are limitless but include the following:

  1. Reducing stigma: By openly discussing their mental health struggles, leaders can help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues. This can help create a more supportive culture in the workplace and society at large.
  2. Encouraging others to seek help: When leaders share their experiences with mental health struggles, it can encourage others to seek help for their own mental health issues. This can be especially powerful if the leader is respected and admired.
  3. Building trust and empathy: When leaders share their vulnerabilities, it can help build trust and empathy among team members. This can create a more supportive and collaborative work environment.
  4. Leading by example: Leaders who openly discuss their mental health struggles can lead by example and demonstrate that it is possible to be successful while also dealing with mental health challenges. This can help remove some of the pressure and shame that people may feel about their own struggles.
  5. Improving overall well-being: By openly discussing mental health struggles and seeking help, leaders can improve their overall well-being and effectiveness. This can lead to better decision-making, improved relationships, and tremendous success in the workplace and life.

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