Success and Mental Illness


Success and mental illness go together like peanut butter and jelly. In fact, it doesn’t take long to put together a list of successful people who struggle with mental illness. Famous and successful individuals like Abraham Lincoln, J.K. Rowling, and Jim Carey all struggled with clinical depression. Even the billionaire and media icon, Oprah Winfrey, has had personal struggles with anxiety and PTSD. Statistics strongly reinforce the idea that there is a positive correlation between success and mental illness. A study published by the University of Cincinnati Law Review in 2008 suggested that CEO’s may have twice the risk of developing depression compared to the general population. Another study completed in 2015 by Dr. Michael Freeman found that 49% of entrepreneurs have experienced a mental illness. This data begs the question: Why are successful people so prone to mental health struggles?

Where’s The Connection?

When we look closer, many of the symptoms of mental illness actually align with the characteristics that are naturally most common among successful people. For example, people who live with bipolar disorder can become hyper obsessed with highly ambitious goals or plans. Traits like creativity, extroversion, hyper focus, and high risk tolerance are hallmarks of a variety of mental illnesses and can in some cases help those who live with them exceed in their endeavors. When an individuals environment or job role matches well with an individuals character traits, an individual can capitalize on these strengths.

Success = Pressure

As with most good things, success comes with a price. Along with success comes higher expectations, more responsibilities, as well as increased attention and scrutiny. This added pressure can easily snowball into larger issues over time. Success can also create a sense of isolation and neglect of self. It’s not uncommon for successful people to push aside social connections, ignore self care, and isolate themselves in pursuit of their goals or responsibilities. Over time this behavior can cause burnout, existential concerns, or a much more severe form of mental illness.

The Stigma of Getting Help

Unfortunately, seeking help for mental illness still carries a stigma. For successful people, that stigma is often amplified because of the pressure they feel to stay on top. Highly accomplished individuals fear being perceived as incapable or weak, and pride themselves on their high functioning capabilities. Due to this, it’s sometimes hard for them to ask for help when they really need it.

Still, for those who are struggling, it’s critical to reach out for help. Many mental health concerns can be easily treated or prevented through talk therapy with a licensed professional. In fact, access to quality care has never been more private or accessible through technology. Online therapy presents an amazing opportunity for busy professionals who don’t have much free time, or are hesitant to show up to an in person therapy session. Online therapy sessions last anywhere from 45-60 minutes and can be completed over a secure video conference line or phone call.

Redefining What Success Is

Whether it’s the fact that successful careers favor characteristics shared with many mental illnesses, the stress and pressure of success itself, or the strong stigma against seeking help, there’s an opportunity to change the way we think about mental health as a society. When leaders of a community harness their strengths and rise above their struggles, it gives people hope and encouragement. Changing the perception surrounding mental illness may mean redefining our definition of success as a society. Most people think of success in terms of status and money, but true success is living a happy and full-filled life, being comfortable in your own skin, and understanding who you truly are. As more people begin to define their own success by those measures, it will undoubtedly cause a shift in how we view both mental health, and achievement.