Saying that Rick Chollet had it all doesn't quite say it all. Chollet, the son of struggling French immigrants, built a small mail-order tool business called Brookstone into a hugely successful national purveyor of adult toys and gadgets. He was handsome, happily married, loved by employees and colleagues-and as it turned out, deeply despondent. Last March 18, out of the blue it seemed, Chollet took his life. "Please forgive me, but the thought of going through the torture of living is just too much to bear," he wrote to his family before locking the garage door of his New Hampshire house, climbing into his BMW and turning on the engine. His wife, Susan, later revealed that Chollet had been depressed for half of his adult life. People put him on such a pedestal, she said, that he constantly feared letting them down. "He swung from feeling totally powerful to totally helpless."
Recent disclosures about the extortionary salaries CEOs award themselves may make them unlikely candidates for sympathy. But the truth is, psychiatrists say, it can be terrifying at the top. Many highpowered company chiefs like Chollet harbor suicidal feelings along with their stock options and chamber of commerce trophies. Often, they are so bent on maintaining a veneer of authority that they have trouble acknowledging they need help. Psychiatrists nevertheless treat scores of stressed out execs. "I think half the successful work force is depressed," says Douglas LaBier, a Washington, D.C., psychoanalyst who heads the Project On Adult Lives, one of a growing number of programs focused on treating professionals.
Executives at the top are often propelled there by strong drives that are accompanied by rigid personal standards. Some suffer stress because they are perfectionists about their own work, some because they feel overly responsible for setting a shining example for others. When host Eileen Prose recounted the story of Chollet's suicide on Channel 5, on Boston's morning "Good Day" show, a woman viewer called in to say she, too, had attempted suicide recently because of the pressures of running a prosperous business, and feared she might try it again. "It's just so overwhelming," the caller said. "Everyone looks at me as a leader and all I want to do is run."
Women chiefs may feel especially conflicted about success because often they are brought up to put the needs of others first. They don't necessarily resort to suicide. Instead, says Tanya Korkosz, a psychiatrist at Leadership Consulting Group in Belmont, Mass., they may unwittingly sabotage themselves by gaining weight or developing chronic medical problems. Psychotherapist Steven Berglas, author of "The Success Syndrome: Hitting Bottom When You Reach the Top," adds that execs may adopt such "self-handicapping" behavior so they can blame any subsequent failure on something other than their own incompetence. This gives them a way of "quitting without appearing to quit."
There are, in fact, any number of reasons for executive blues. One major cause is what Berglas calls "encore anxiety," fear that they won't be able to repeat or sustain earlier achievements. Some executives may be secretly convinced they got to the top by an undeserved stroke of luck, unlikely to recur. They live in dread of exposure. Gerald Kraines, a psychiatrist who treated Chollet for depression, estimates that 20 to 30 percent of CEOs he encounters through his work as a consultant on organizational stress fall in the category of fearing their inadequacy will be found out. The trouble is, he says, they compensate by driving themselves more and more. "They're on a treadmill where they can never savor their success, because they have to keep working harder."
Dealing with executives in distress can be more complicated than treating ordinary patients, say the handful of experts beginning to specialize in that area. For one thing, in the process of keeping anxieties hidden from others executives manage to conceal them from themselves. The first, perhaps hardest, step is getting the executive to recognize he's depressed, says Jeffrey Lynn Speller, director of Harvard Medical School's Leadership Research Project and author of "Executives in Crisis." Once that is done, Speller concentrates on helping patients reconstruct their self-esteem around their personal lives instead of their jobs. Specialists say many troubled execs have molded their lives according to a distorted sense of what their parents or others expect from them. The therapist tries to broaden the patient's definition of achievement.
One unique treatment approach is ACCEL, a four-week program for "high-functioning individuals" at Timberlawn Psychiatric Hospital in Dallas, Texas. Psychiatrist Mark Unterberg says he founded the VIP program four years ago after a CEO who had been admitted for a nervous breakdown grew even shakier in the hospital's restrictive environment. Unterberg realized executives had to be kept busy and allowed to use phones to pursue the healthy aspects of their lives. Patients are put on a regimen of five and six group therapy sessions per day. Each is assigned to at least two psychiatrists, sometimes a third if substance abuse is involved.
VIPs' resistance to treatment can be strong. One CEO had not taken a vacation in 14 years, believing that if he did, his employees would think he was shirking his duty. Psychiatrists recognize, of course, that there are hundreds of healthy executives who thrive on such unrelenting work and challenge. But hundreds of others may feel like they're on a treadmill to oblivion, unable to get off until they fall off. Or, like Rick Chollet, until they jump.