Published On: Tue, May 30th, 2017

Depression in High Achievers: Lessons for the Rest of Us

Clinical depression remains a very poorly understood illness outside medical circles; this is despite the fact that more than one in twenty Americans will suffer from it in any given year. Alarmingly, the number of professionally diagnosed cases is rising by 20% annually.

While many of those affected have difficulty in reaching their full potential at work and maintaining relationships, it’s also true that some simply perform better even than most people without mental health issues. What makes the difference? Do some people simply possess enormous reserves of drive, resilience and perseverance?

Major depression is, in fact, the largest single cause of being unable to work in U.S. adults under 45. While most people have a stereotypical impression of what it involves, it is a complex condition with a great deal of variation between cases.

photo ijmaki via pixabay

Characteristics of High-Functioning Depressives

The most important thing to understand is that nobody can tell if a person is clinically depressed simply by looking at them. Even some people with the disease aren’t truly aware of the fact, which goes some way towards explaining why as many as three quarters of sufferers don’t seek treatment. Simply because someone does well at school or work and is highly engaged socially, and therefore “should” be happy, doesn’t prove that they aren’t living with depression. Additionally, many depressives are very practiced at putting on a brave front until their illness somehow goes away, or they finally succumb to the pressure. Who hasn’t heard of a person who seemingly “had it all” committing suicide?

Depression can be a chronic disease that persists through several years. In many cases, treatment is not a case of “curing” it, but of finding and implementing effective management strategies. One typical feature of successful people – and not only those who struggle with depression – is that they’ve learned how to manage their lives effectively. Following a routine that includes exercise and healthy eating, not compromising on taking downtime when needed and simply getting into the habit of being aware of your own mood will be beneficial to most people; it’s just twice as important for anyone dealing with mental health issues.

Another factor to consider is that high achievers often feel lonely, whether they’re surrounded by people or not. Some reasons for this may be the amount of time and dedication required to excel in any field, guilt rooted in succeeding where others have failed or simply having few people around on the same social and mental level. Whether such feelings of isolation are by themselves sufficient to leave someone depressed depends heavily on the individual, but they can certainly be a contributing factor.

People pursuing a career in the arts are also more likely to be depressed, with writers (at least in Sweden) being 50% more likely to commit suicide than most people. Nor does this necessarily apply only to those that produce mostly melancholy work: Hans Christian Anderson, Woody Allen and Douglas Adams all suffered from depression. However, it’s not really known whether being creatively inclined somehow leads to mental health issues, or psychic suffering drives people to be more creative.

Finally, in some cases depression is strongly linked to a perfectionist personality, meaning that the same character traits responsible for someone’s success contribute to mental health issues. Among other characteristics of this personality type, they will often be overly self-critical and worried about others’ perceptions of them. In this case, cognitive behavioral therapy can be very effective in allowing them to see themselves and their role in society in a more realistic light. Unfortunately, a person fitting this description also tends to be wary of admitting to weakness of any type, leading many of them to delay seeking valuable treatment.

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The rapid increase in the rate of depression being formally diagnosed may have something to do with the stress of modern life, but a more germane explanation is that mental health issues are simply better understood these days. Mental health issues have little respect for a person’s circumstances: while recently losing a job or ending a marriage certainly puts someone at increased risk, depression can strike a millionaire musician or athlete at the top of his form equally hard.

Author: Murris Johnson

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