Why Highly Successful People are Prone to Depression

“It was October 2014 when I lost all hope. I was one of the world’s most successful athletes, 18 gold medals, the all-American dream come true. But I was lost. I hadn’t left my room in five days. I questioned whether I wanted to be alive anymore.”

If these words sound familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard them in a TV commercial featuring Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. Phelps is an incredibly successful athlete; he retired after the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio as the most decorated Olympian in history. His fame has brought him worldwide name recognition and a net worth of more than $60 million — all by the age of 33. He seemed to have everything going for him.

So why wasn’t he happy? How could he even consider taking his own life?

Those are the same questions people asked after the tragic suicides of entrepreneur Kate Spade, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, and a string of high-profile billionaire CEOs. For most of these individuals, the answer was simple: they suffered from debilitating depression. However, that answer ultimately led to even more questions.

What causes depression?

Depression and other mental health conditions can affect anyone. No gender, ethnicity, age range, family status, or income level is immune. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, more than 322 million people worldwide suffer from depression

“Chemical imbalance” is a widely accepted explanation of what causes depression. While that’s fundamentally true, the facts are much more complicated. “To be sure, chemicals are involved in this process,” says Harvard Medical School in a June 2019 post, “but it is not a simple matter of one chemical being too low and another too high. There are millions, even billions, of chemical reactions that make up the dynamic system that is responsible for your mood, perceptions, and how you experience life.”

People with a family history of mental health conditions may be at a higher risk for developing depression because of their genetic backgrounds. They are also more prone to depression due to growing up around people struggling with it. Stressful life events, early losses or trauma, medical problems, and even certain medications can trigger the onset of depression. Often it’s a combination of these factors. 

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High-profile depression

Some experts speculate that high-powered business executives and entrepreneurs may be more susceptible to depression than others. A 2015 research study by UC Berkeley found that 72% of entrepreneurs reported mental health concerns, and 49% reported having one or more lifetime mental health conditions — results that were significantly higher than the non-entrepreneurs comparison group. Another study found that CEOs may be depressed at more than double the rate of the public at large.

Executives, business owners, and those in the public eye such as celebrities and athletes always face a perceived pressure to perform. There’s also the perception — and sometimes reality — of constant competition and failure doesn’t seem to be an option. Grueling hours, constant criticism from others, including strangers, and a loss of the identity you once possessed can open the door to mental health conditions such as depression.

Even though some athletes, celebrities, and executives seem to possess superhuman power, they’re as vulnerable as the rest of us when it comes to genetics, childhood loss, and medical conditions. Their depression may stem from a family history of mental health issues, the early death of a parent, or an undiagnosed thyroid imbalance. When a famous person such as Michael Phelps admits to suffering from depression, it shouldn’t be — and usually can’t be — up to the public to figure out the reasons why. 

Suicide is not the only outcome of Depression

Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain struggled with depression to the degree that ultimately led to their deaths at their own hands. However, suicide is never a necessary outcome for someone suffering from depression. Reaching out for help from a mental health professional like the Therapy Group of DC therapists in Washington is always the best path to seek for anyone with depression symptoms, which can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
  • Pessimism and hopelessness
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Loss of interest in things once pleasurable
  • Persistent sad, anxious, or empty feelings

Famous, powerful, and connected people may feel that they’re too busy to stop for a moment to talk to a professional, or perhaps they believe that admitting they’re vulnerable to a mental health condition is a sign of weakness. However, more and more people are looking to psychotherapy for treatment and helping them cope with the symptoms of depression. The stigma of seeking assistance is dissipating. If you would like to talk about your stressful lifestyle or personal struggles with a licensed counselor, contact us today to schedule an appointment

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