Samuel A. Ball Ph.D.

Adventures in Psychiatry

Addressing Mental Health for Executives and Professionals

Identifying a mental health or substance use problem can be a challenge.

Posted Jun 26, 2018

The suicides or accidental overdose deaths of celebrities and other high achieving individuals often shocks the public who believes that these people “had it all.” In reality, the long-standing problems experienced by these high-achievement individuals has not only caused them terrible suffering, but also caused major disruptions and threats to their health and performance, the well-being of their family, and the success or safety of others. The suffering and harm may be due to the recent onset of a substance use or mental health problem in the context of significant occupational, familial, traumatic, or other stress associated with career and life changes. Alternatively, the person may have struggled for years with distressing symptoms which may or may not have been known by others.

Identifying a mental health or substance use problem can be a challenge especially among individuals who are very successful and perceived to be in control of their lives and their careers. For high-level executives and professionals, a problem may not be recognized until a time of crisis when they may be at high risk for suicide or other destructive behavior. The recognition of a substance use or mental health disorder in an executive or professional represents a crisis for the individual, family, and work colleagues which none are prepared to manage. By the time a leader’s problems have impacted others in the workplace or home, the severity of symptoms and risk often exceeds what can be treated safely and effectively through outpatient therapies in the community. Executives and professionals oftentimes believe they should be immune to these very common human conditions. They view themselves and have a reputation as strong problem solvers, gifted performers, highly resilient, more stress-tested, and better equipped to deal with their problems than the average person.  While this may be true, this character strength can actually become a weakness when it comes to admitting the need for help and seeking professional treatment.

Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

Colleagues and family members may also unintentionally create barriers to treatment by believing that their friend or loved one can handle anything on their own. They may ignore or even think they are helping by covering up problems, viewing depression or heavy drinking as just the result of heightened stress, or hoping difficulties only reflect a temporary situation which will pass.

Because of the delays in recognizing the problem of high-achievers and convincing them of the need for mental health or addiction treatment, a problem that might have been manageable in outpatient therapy often escalates to a crisis requiring hospital treatment away from major sources of stress or symptoms.

In many areas of life, celebrities and other very high achieving individuals have ready access to opportunities, experiences, and services that most people do not have. One major exception is that they typically do not have access to high quality, effective residential treatment for their mental health and addiction problems. The so-called luxury rehab programs usually emphasize the inspiring beauty of their treatment setting or their menu of amenities rather than the delivering high quality, professionally-delivered medications and psychotherapies that research has found effective for mental health and addiction problems. These professional treatment services receive much greater emphasis in the–unfortunately few–reputable hospital programs in the country that specialize in the treatment of executives, professionals, and other high achieving persons.

If there is reason to believe that outpatient treatment might be sufficient, then individuals, families, and concerned colleagues may consider this lower intensity option first. However, if the executive or professional’s problems do not show signs of immediate stabilization, the risk of impairment escalating to the point of serious and irreparable damage to the person, their family, and their work are too high; and time away from work and home in a safe environment providing high-quality professional services may be lifesaving.

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