Thursday, August 11, 2016

Michael Phelps, Robin Williams and the “Lonely at the Top” Phenomenon Many Men Experience

Flickr Creative Commons by mah3nngs578
On the second anniversary of Robin Williams death by suicide, many of us are still haunted wondering how someone so talented, famous, and wonderful could feel so alone and hopeless. Earlier this summer, we heard a similar story when Michael Phelps disclosed that – like Williams – despite being a global celebrity with unparalleled abilities, he felt he had “…no self-esteem. No self-worth. I thought the world would just be better off without me. I figured that was the best thing to do -- just end my life." (Drehs, ESPN, 2016).

ESPN reporter Wayne Drehs observed, “Phelps realized that all the Olympic medals in the world couldn't ease his pain -- and instead made life more complicated.”

Tragically, this scenario is all too common for many men. While not usually on the world stage, the manly pursuit of achievement, power and wealth can lead to great status but often at the cost of relationships. Too often family and friends are afterthoughts as men strive for greater rewards. To cope with the loneliness that often results, men tend to self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, sex, and other self-destructive behaviors.

In 2011. I wrote an article for Psychiatric Annals called “High Performers and Suicide Prevention in the Workplace.” The article was written largely to help me make sense of my brother Carson’s suicide in 2004. In the article, we summarized key findings from our focus groups with men:
  • ·        High performers often feel overwhelmed but do not think they are “allowed” to show it
o   “We must power through impossible expectations.”
  • ·        Mental health conditions are largely misunderstood
o   “There is a great deal of fear that equates mental disorders with violence or incompetence. No one wants to be associated with that. Fear overrides good sense.”
  • ·        High performers want to “fix” themselves
o   “I needed to stitch up my own wound like Rambo.”

High performers are less likely to expose vulnerability because of fear to appearing weak. They tend to white-knuckle through their distress because of a perception that any misstep might make them tumble from the top – and the fall could be far. Additionally, because of their high status position, others are less likely to offer empathy or even notice warning signs of mental health problems.

Noted thought leader and suicidologist Thomas Joiner wrote a book called Lonely at the Top in part to help us understand why so many men of working age are dying by suicide. His suggestion is that men need to make some conscious intentions about nourishing their relationships – as friends, parents, partners, and co-workers. While a thriving career might be giving men a sense of purpose tied to their achievements, without strong social connections, the isolation can erode self-worth and lead to life threatening depression.

Flickr Creative Commons by Cliff
Thus, it is quite fitting that the intervention that Phelps credits his recovery to is reading APurpose Driven Life.  This book led Phelps on a spiritual journey to uncover deeper meanings to “What on Earth am I here for?” Through this discernment process, he was able to focus on his life outside of the pool – as a son, as a father and as a soon-to-be-husband – and start a journey to recovery.

Michael Phelps is my hero on many levels. By publicly sharing his darkest moments at a time when the whole world was watching, he did more than gain a few more medals, he gave millions hope.

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