What We Can Learn from Elon Musk: Mental Health Awareness in the Business World

By Dan Perlman, LMSW

I truly loathe the use of hyperbole. “Always," “ever," “never,” and “every” are words which undermine our ability think calmly and rationally.  So when I say “No one is ever outside of its grasp and everyone must remain ever vigilant to it, I’m doing this intentionally to bring discomfort and draw focus to the “it,” which in this case is debilitating depression. In light of Elon Musk courageously sharing his personal emotional struggles in August 2018, I hope the value of mental health will continue to grow in awareness and its stigma reduced in the business world. I hope that eventually preventive mental health at work through Employee Assistance Programs (EAP’s) will become ubiquitous to the degree to which exercise and physical health have become accepted and encouraged. 

Elon Musk is a 47 year old man, born in South Africa, three times married with six children, and a resident of three countries, USA, South Africa, and Canada. Musk was severely bullied throughout his childhood and was once hospitalized when a group of boys threw him down a flight of stairs and then beat him until he lost consciousness.  His parents divorced in 1980 when he was 9 and Musk lived mostly with his father in the suburbs, which he now says was "not a good idea." As an adult, Musk has severed relations with his father, he has a half-sister, and half-brother. This summary sounds like he could be a number of my beloved clients with potential attachment issues and early traumas. I’d be on the lookout for coping mechanisms gone awry and some potential anxiety or depression down the road. 

I share this early life bio on Musk because he is one of the greatest entrepreneurs, engineers, and investors of our lifetime.  Elon Musk founded the online payments system PayPal in1998 and selling it to Ebay in 2002 for $1.5 billion.  He then went on to found SpaceX, an aerospace manufacturer and space transport services company, co-founded Tesla, Inc., an electric vehicle and solar panel manufacturer, and inspired the creation of SolarCity, a solar energy services company.  Musk is brilliant and stated that the goals of SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity revolve around his vision to change the world and humanity. His goals include reducing global warming through sustainable energy production and consumption, and reducing the "risk of human extinction" by establishing a human colony on Mars. There is clearly nothing beyond his grasp. 

His boundless vision made it newsworthy when he shared this summer that he suffers from issues of depression which affect his everyday life.  This contained a special message to me because many executives fear such an admission is tantamount to a loss of credibility, and as CEO there’s a constant managing of public Image.  His reality, he said, is a mix of “great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress” as a result of his battles with mental health. While some believe seeking treatment makes them look weak, Musk turns things on their head by sharing unabashedly to the entire world at once via the New York Times and Twitter. While he knows that telling the word will not obviate him from the pain to come, my hope is this will lead to the opportunity to process, grow, and move forward.  Perhaps he went public to help others avert their own depression? Perhaps to normalize the idea of depression?  Either way, shares in his company traded down 5% that day (TSLA $305.50-29.95) losing $5 billion in market capitalization and have since remained flat. After rising 750% since 2013 to a capitalization of $50 billion, Musk is currently worth $20 billion making him the 46th wealthiest person in the world. It will now be an interesting social experiment to see how Musk, his company, and the acceptance of metal health into the workplace EAP’s move forward. 

With one of our greatest thinkers putting himself out there the business world must now recognize we all possess a limit beyond which anxiety and depression await to pounce.  We all (hyperbole intended) must face the reality that we’re all in fact vulnerable. So yes, I use hyperbole repeatedly in this very dangerous space for emphasis because everyone must remain ever vigilant in recognizing the signs and pathways toward depression in order to fight it off. We must remain ever mindful of the need for preventive therapy and the need to normalize its use to preserve and protect our mental health no matter how big our dreams or successes.

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Dan Perlman is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy LCSW. If you would like support in exploring and managing emotions, visit cobbpsychotherapy.com to learn more about how therapy can help.