I'm Alive, Is That Good Enough? When Careers Lead to Suicide

When criticism and high expectations push us to the edge and beyond.

Posted Feb 19, 2013

In recent months there have been a number of shocking high-profile suicides. We know that suicide nearly always occurs as a result of numerous culminating factors that fall under the larger umbrellas of extreme stress, psychological/physical illness, or intoxication/substance abuse. According to the nonprofit organization suicide.org, “Over 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a mental illness at the time of their death.”

In the recent suicides of Jody Sherman, Aaron Swartz, and Jacintha Saldanha, each making news headlines, the common thread appears to be career-related stress linked with depression. But beyond the everyday work stress that nearly all of us can relate to, theirs was extreme distress as a result of being pushed too far or too hard in their professional lives.

Jacintha Saldanha was a nurse who made global headlines in December for her role in a radio DJ hoax involving Duchess Kate Middleton. Saldanha received a phone call at the hospital where she worked from Australian DJs impersonating members of the Royal Family. Saldanha allowed that call to be put through to a nurse who released Middleton’s private health information. Three days later, Saldanha hanged herself in the nurse’s quarters of the hospital. It is reported that she had a history of depression and suicide attempts.

Jody Sherman was the CEO of Ecomom, a Silicon Valley eco-retail startup, who surely felt the inevitable high-stakes pressure of pleasing investors and succeeding in the extremely competitive tech business world. On January 27th, 2013, Sherman took his life in California.

Only two weeks earlier, on January 11th, 26-year-old tech genius Aaron Swartz committed suicide in New York. Swartz is profiled in the February 28th issue of Rolling Stone where the headline reads: The Brilliant Life and Tragic Death of Aaron Swartz: He was a child prodigy, an Internet pioneer and an activist who refused to back down - even when the feds tried to break him. Swartz had been undergoing a two-year federal investigation for computer hacking allegations. He was also an activist infamous for fighting for internet accessibility. He reportedly suffered from depression.

These stories, and so many like them, carry with them two themes that we’ve heard for years: The first is that mental illness is highly stigmatized and our society does not do enough to address mental health care. The second is that of the extreme pressure to succeed and the high cost of making mistakes or falling short of high expectations. A story that played out over 60 years ago when Willy Loman first appeared on stage. Since then, the unhappy endings have become commonplace. 

From the earliest age, we simply aren’t taught how to learn from mistakes, we’re taught how to beat ourselves up and then clean up the mess. We learn that mistakes equal punishment, and eventually begin punishing ourselves and our neighbors quite harshly. We might hear, but few of us truly internalize, that we can and will fail. And then we'll fail again. And then again. It feels tough – maybe excruciating – but then it gets better. And through it all there is love, forgiveness, and the rest of life waiting just outside the door.

While it’s easy to point at what’s wrong in society, it does little good to chit-chat about the sky falling if we're just waiting for somebody else to come along and patch it. Waiting for the monolithic corporations to catch up with the 21st century and stop pushing their people to the farthest crumbling edge of the stress cliff. Waiting for the boss, the judge, the nagging parent, or the angry neighbor to say, it's okay, we all make mistakes. While we're waiting, we can start with ourselves and our loved ones. We can start now by becoming acquainted with the possibilities of compassion.

Compassion - could it be that simple?

Last year psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson wrote in her Psychology Today article, Forget Self-Esteem, “Self-compassion is a willingness to look at your own mistakes and shortcomings with kindness and understanding – it’s embracing the fact that to err is indeed human.” This is not the same thing, Halvorson points out, "as taking yourself off the hook or lowering the bar. " It's about being "self-compassionate while still accepting responsibility for your performance." It's a message that people will need to hear over and over. We need to tell this to ourselves, we need to hear it from those who care about us, and we need to tell it to those whom we care about.

Even if this is somewhat smarmy self-help territory, I’m going to hedge my bets on compassion. Choosing to believe that, like doe-eyed Stuart Smalley facing the mirror, I’m good enough right now by virtue of being here. So are my neighbors. So are my enemies. So are the nurses who make mistakes, the young prodigies who hack into computer files, the CEOs who are under immense pressure to please investors. They need to know that their mistakes and expectations are worth less than their lives. That just because they dropped out of college, didn't make partner at the firm, or that their business failed to strike it rich, they are still worthy of love and life. Because of all the other virtues they posses - and simply because they are here. That is how compassion starts and that is how it can change the headlines.

What do you think will help change the pace and pressure of our relentless drive to succeed? Join the discussion below.


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Brad Waters MSW provides career coaching and consultation to clients nationwide. He helps people explore career direction and take action on career transitions. Brad holds a Master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan.

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