Under Pressure: A Message of Concern for CEOs and Colleagues

In late May, Martin Senn, the former CEO of Zurich Insurance Group, took his own life just months after leaving the company. Only three years earlier, the company's former CFO, Pierre Wauthier, also committed suicide, and not long after that, so did Swisscom CEO Carsten Schloter.

Statistics about senior executive suicides are scarce. Often, these tragedies are hidden from public view, with only the most prominent making the news. But suicide has cast a shadow on Silicon Valley. A disturbingly high number of founders and entrepreneurs have chosen this path: Austin Heinz, with Cambrian Genomics.  Aaron Swartz, with Reddit.  Jody Sherman, with Ecomom. Ovik Banerjee, with Venture for America. Matt Berman, with Bolt Barber. Ilya Zhitomirskiy, with Diaspora. Ian Gibbons, with Theranos.  (And I worry that the problem is moving downstream. Last year, in the Silicon Valley town of Palo Alto, home to Stanford University and Facebook, there were four high school suicides.)

The pressure on executives and entrepreneurs is daunting. Picture feeling overwhelmed, at your most vulnerable, and not being able to share it because it might put at risk funding, or an acquisition, or an IPO. Who wants to follow or invest in a leader who is exhibiting weakness? On the entrepreneurial roller-coaster, there can be amazing highs and crashing lows.

The general statistics on suicide are sobering enough:

  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US for all ages. (CDC)
  • More people die from suicide than homicide and war combined. (WHO)
  • There is one death by suicide in the US every 12.3 minutes. (CDC)
  • Depression affects 20-25% of Americans age 18 and over in a given year. (CDC)
  • Suicide takes the lives of over 38,000 Americans every year. (CDC)
  • 45% of suicide victims had contact with primary care providers within the prior month. (American Journal of Psychiatry)
  • An estimated quarter million people each year become suicide survivors. (AAS)

Yet executives and entrepreneurs are apparently at still higher risk. Dr. Michael Freeman, a clinical professor at UCSF and himself an entrepreneur, has studied the connection between mental health issues and entrepreneurship. Of 242 entrepreneurs surveyed, 49% reported having a mental-health condition. Depression was the most reported condition, present in 30% of the group, followed by ADHD (29%) and anxiety problems (27%). As a point of comparison, the general US population only reports 7% as depressed.

This is a problem that needs to be addressed. There is a lot of loneliness and depression in this world, and many people feel like failures because they can’t live up to impossibly high standards they see in the media or set for themselves. Perhaps Silicon Valley can heal itself. There are any number of new startups attempting to solve different issues in the mental healthcare space, which may include access to care, delivery of care, or quality of care. Notable names include Lantern, Ginger.io, Lyra, and Breakthrough (acquired by MDLive).

But this is also a cultural issue. Suicide needs to be openly discussed; stigmas need to be removed. On National Council Hill Day 2016 last month, hundreds of behavioral health providers, administrators, board members, consumers, and community stakeholders gathered in Washington DC and visited Capitol Hill to advocate for better resources for mental health and addiction treatment in their communities.

It’s been painful to read some of these statistics and stories as I researched this post. There are times during my own academic and professional career when I have gone through periods of depression, and wasn’t sure how to ask for help. (Fortunately, I’m in a happy place now.) If you’re reading this as a benefits professional, do your employees -- and your execs -- have easy access to help?  And if you yourself are going through a hard time, remember there are people you can talk to, without fear of judgement or implication.

If you're struggling and need help, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-8255 anytime.

Chris Chan
by Chris Chan

Principal, Innovation LABS, Mercer

Chris is a Principal and Innovation Imagineer with Mercer’s Health Innovation LABS, where he helps build creative solutions that complement employers’ health and welfare benefits programs. He focuses on developing strategies and products through the use of human-centered design, machine learning, consumer data insights and creating customer delight. Chris graduated from the University of California with a degree in neurobiology.

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