'Addiction, anxiety and depression nearly killed me' – PR leaders open up about mental health battles

Two industry leaders who have recovered from addiction and mental health issues are urging PR professionals to seek help if required. The pair opened up about their experiences on The PR Show podcast.

(L-R) Kev O'Sullivan and John Brown talk about their mental health battles on the podcast
(L-R) Kev O'Sullivan and John Brown talk about their mental health battles on the podcast

Don’t Cry Wolf co-founder and chief executive John Brown and FelishmanHillard Fishburn executive creative director Kev O’Sullivan have opened up to PRWeek about their past battles and concerns for the industry’s mental health heading into a long, dark winter of restrictions and isolation.

Speaking on PRWeek’s podcast, The PR Show (see below to listen), Brown explained how his ‘wild teenage years’ spiralled into drug addiction and almost cost him his life.

His drug use set off a spiral of “nasty depression and anxiety”, including moments where it was “pretty rocky”.

“That manifested itself into something quite awful, which was me having a heart attack at the age of 19,” he said

“That spurred on a sense of dread, a constant fear of having another one of these episodes, and being quite detached from my previous life, and that was a tough old thing to battle at the age of 19 and 20.”

Brown said he was fortunate to receive “outstanding support and extraordinary therapy” to get him through a dark period and help him rebuild his life.

Importantly, he has learned that working on mental wellbeing is an ongoing process that he continues today.

“That’s a tremendously important part of being a well-balanced guy,” he added. “I spend a lot of time trying to discuss mental health with my team, friends and family openly and transparently, because I think it's just such a tremendously important thing to kind of keep on top of… especially in this sort of environment.”

‘I wore it as a badge of honour’

O’Sullivan told The PR Show that when he started his career in  PR in the early noughties, the communications industry was still synonymous with “excess, drinking, drugging and what have you”.

“I wore it as a brighter badge of honour than anybody else,” he said.

He said it wasn't until his mid-30s, when his father passed away and he had launched a successful comms agency, that he registered that the party had long since stopped.

“I had failed to realise that said party wasn't going on anymore, and that my drinking was almost automatic. In a way, it wasn't an descape; there was something in me that was forcing me to reach for the bottle in the strangest and most excessive of circumstances,” O’Sullivan recalled.

“That continued for a very long time. You hear people discuss their 'battle with addiction', mine was very much being in the boxing ring with alcohol. And every time that I tried to get out, either the alcohol or I myself pulled [me] back in.”

O’Sullivan admits that he didn’t truly accept that he had a problem until last year – and it only hit home when he wound up in a hospital in Chicago, followed by rehab.

Both Brown and O’Sullivan hope their stories will inspire others in the industry to open up about their own problems with addiction and mental ill-health.

Edelman’s managing director of advocacy and public affairs, Luciana Berger, told The PR Show it is important that more industry leaders step up to share their lived experiences of tackling mental health issues.

“If I look to other sectors, it's fair to say that I can identify individuals who have been leaders in this field [who] have helped to not just advance a conversation, but also to open things up,” she said. “[It] ensures there is less of a gulf between people's experience and being able to talk about it and access support, as well as being open about it with their teams.”

This important episode of The PR Show also featured The Romans senior account director Indigo Le Fèvre and mental health expert and member of the Head Office Collective Amy McKeown.

Running order

02:00 John Brown and Kev O'Sullivan open up about their mental health battles.

11:00 How does client pressure contribute?

13:30 Luciana Berger discusses public policy on mental health: "It’s been a poor relation to physical health."

15:20 The impact of the pandemic on mental health.

24:40 "An opportunity for PR industry to reset practices and culture."

28:00 What agencies are doing about it: "Strategy, monitoring moods, transparency, sympathy, inclusiveness."

37:30 What more can the industry do: "We’re in favour of sector-wide approach, PR mental health charter, let’s stamp out bravado and be more human."

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