Leadership with a Diagnosis of Depression

Type: Article
Topics: Health & Wellness, School Administrator Magazine

January 01, 2024

A superintendent’s deeply personal story of confronting a mental health condition on the job and finding ways to persevere

This is absolutely not the story I wanted to write or share with anyone. I wanted to write about the accomplishments and improvements that were realized in nearly every aspect of our school district during my five-year tenure as a superintendent, including the highest levels of student achievement in 17 years. But I believe this deeply personal story is more urgent, particularly given the prevalence of mental health concerns in education.

With some trepidation about sharing, this is the story I need to tell.

Severe Anxiety

I was named superintendent of the Urbandale Community School District, a suburban district just outside Des Moines, Iowa, in January 2010. Elated for the opportunity to leverage my influence districtwide, I wanted us to embark on a journey of quality and continual improvement, based on the teachings of W. Edwards Deming that have yielded profound improvements across multiple employment sectors around the world.

Three months later, on March 10, 2010, I was sitting hunched over and sobbing in an examination room with my physician of 30 years.

The previous evening, I experienced what was explained to me as a severe anxiety attack that lasted for nearly two hours. At my wife’s urging, the next morning I was in my doctor’s office. After sharing what I experienced and how I had been feeling for the longest time, he offered this diagnosis: anxiety and depression.

The diagnosis, while not particularly surprising, hit me hard. Anxiety and depression were not the words I wanted to hear at age 52, just as I was embarking on the most significant leadership challenge of my life. At the same time, knowing and naming what I was experiencing gave me some relief.

With diagnosis in hand, I struggled with what to do. How could I lead an entire school community in this condition? I seriously considered quitting and had not yet even signed the contract issued to me in January. I finally signed in late March, something that no one knew, for as the head of human resources, I kept it a secret. But onward I went.

This Content is Exclusive to Members

AASA Member? Login to Access the Full Resource

Not a Member? Join Now | Learn More About Membership


Doug Stilwell

Clinical assistant professor of educational leadership, and former superintendent

Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa

Managing Mental Health: Essential Tips for Superintendents

Navigating the complex world of leadership with mental health challenges requires both strength and strategy. Reflecting on my personal journey, I’d like to offer some tangible guidance for fellow superintendents based on my own experiences:

Embrace self-acceptance. 

Recognize and accept your condition: Denial is not just futile. It can hinder progress in managing your mental health.

Carefully tread the waters of disclosure.

Deciding to share: Should you disclose your condition? This deeply personal choice must be made thoughtfully, considering potential effects on your professional trajectory. Trust and confidentiality are paramount.

Know your legal rights: Familiarize yourself with workplace regulations and national laws that safeguard employees with mental health conditions.

Seek expert assistance.

Therapy’s value: Speaking to a mental health expert can provide coping strategies, identify triggers and provide a safe place for emotional release. For me, these interactions paved the path to self-acceptance and effective management of my depression.

Medicinal routes: Some find relief through medication. Always discuss potential side effects with health care professionals.

Forge workplace alliances.

Within the office: A compassionate colleague can significantly mitigate workplace stresses. You can find solace without divulging every detail — I often leaned on allies unaware of my struggles.

Outside the office: Cultivate and cherish a circle of close friends or family. Their understanding can be invaluable, as was my wife’s unwavering support.

Commit to self-care and boundaries.

Intervals and personal moments: Regular breaks during work hours, especially during taxing times, are crucial. Dedicate a moment daily for personal enjoyment, be it a peaceful walk or a quick chat with a trusted friend.

Professional boundaries: As difficult as it can be, set appropriate non-negotiable boundaries between work and personal life to recoup from the work and keep from being overwhelmed by the job.

Stay updated about mental health advancements.

Knowledge is power: Continually update yourself with current research, strategies and discussions on mental health. These insights can bolster your support network and coping mechanisms.

Prep for tough times.

Back-up plans: As a superintendent, you possess considerable control over your calendar. On mentally taxing days, consider task delegation, working remotely or a relaxed schedule.

Clear communication.

Foresee challenges: Relay potential shifts or pauses in work to relevant teams. Clarity can ward off potential miscommunications.

In my journey, one truth stood out: Addressing one’s mental health signifies strength, not weakness. Embracing the right strategies, coupled with unwavering support, allows for a successful superintendency journey while also managing and nurturing one’s mental and emotional health.

—   Doug Stilwell