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Entrepreneurship is a crazy rollercoaster of a ride. There’s moments like the first dollar you make, or making it through your first year of operation, where you experience some fantastic, often dizzying, highs. But unfortunately there are the lows as well, and the fall is that much harder if you’re an entrepreneur struggling with mental illness.
An unpublished study by the University of California has found that entrepreneurs self-report on on mental health conditions like depression, substance abuse, and bipolar disorder more frequently that the general population.
Mental illness and entrepreneurship can be a toxic mix if left unchecked. Unfortunately while mental illness is slowly being recognised and accepted in the entrepreneurial world with events such as Failcon, many entrepreneurs are reluctant to speak up about their problems.
Unfortunately it means we have casualties like Jody Sherman, the founder and CEO of Ecomom, who committed suicide in 2013. He was about to turn 48 years old. His company ran out of cash and shut down a couple weeks after his death, despite the fact that it had raised $5 million just six months before. Eventually, Ecomom was acquired by etailz, Inc despite the fact that it shut down.
90% of startups fail, so most new business owners are under intense pressure to turn their companies into successes. Jody Sherman didn’t leave any sort of note or letter after he committed suicide, but it’s understandable to think that the stress he experienced as the CEO of an imploding company pushed him towards the edge of what any reasonable person could handle.
Though stories like that of Jody Sherman are tragic and do come up, there are also plenty of examples of entrepreneurs who’ve dealt with mental illness and become stronger for it. So let’s not shy away from such an important conversation. Let’s be honest and tackle this problem head on.
Because trust me when I say you’re not alone, and you don’t have handle it alone either.
Problems Entrepreneurs With Mental Illness Often Face
The truth is, as a culture, we’re afraid to talk about mental illness. In the entrepreneurial world it’s almost doubly true. We live in a unique world where almost everything can be summed up as neat facts and figures, where everything is binary, and complex nuance is a rarity.
But we must talk about it.
As uncomfortable as it may be, as uncomfortable as it is, entrepreneurship and mental illness have an uncomfortable close relationship.
So let’s talk about the problems that many and entrepreneurs with mental illness face in this world. The one where we glorify the success stories, while weakly acknowledging that 90% of startups fail. The one where anyone that isn’t a success is almost immediately deemed a failure.
But let’s talk about it, and closely examine the space between the rock and the hard place which many entrepreneurs with mental illness call home.
Appearing weak to investors, employees, and colleagues
Despite how awareness surrounding mental illness has increased in the past decade, unfortunately there is still an enormous stigma surrounding it.
It’s sad to say, but the reality is the majority of the population don’t understand that having a mental illness is largely outside of a person’s control.
Some people who might not understand an entrepreneur’s mental illness are investors, employees, or fellow founders. After all when so much value is placed upon an entrepreneur’s reputation it causes so much extra stress and pressure to not appear “weak”.
If investors find out about an entrepreneur’s mental illness, they might get pushed out of the company or be demoted. Employees finding out about a founder’s mental illness might cause them to lose faith in their ability to lead the company. Entrepreneurs are put in a unique situation where there’s nothing but stress, where everyone is looking up to you, and you have to be a leader. There’s no other way around it.
Having a mental illness doesn’t mean that people are incapable of being entrepreneurs. But, founders have the very real fear that they’ll appear weak and/or incompetent if employees or investors find out about what they’re dealing with. This fear of appearing weak causes so many good people to feel like they’re backed into a corner, where unfortunately some believe that the choice of suicide is better than bearing the shame of being a failure.
“No matter how dark it gets, you should never, ever take your own life. Professional investors understand failure. Your friends and family may not but they should. Your employees will move on and find better things to do with their lives. It is all temporary. You may never heal from it, but everyone around you will.” – Cyan Banister, angel investor and CEO of Zivity.
Many entrepreneurs are so caught up with being an infallible leader that they forget that even the greatest of people have weaknesses.
Letting customers, employees, and employees’ families down
Having a mental illness doesn’t mean entrepreneurs can’t successfully and effectively run their businesses.
But, it is true that, entrepreneurs usually have a tougher time running a business when they’re also dealing with mental illness.
Entrepreneurs are responsible for their employees’ livelihoods and the livelihoods of their families. They’re also responsible for helping their customers live better lives and have a great experience. All of these things create a lot of pressure.
When entrepreneurs are dealing with a mental illness, they often feel like they aren’t doing their jobs effectively because they have to focus some of their time and energy on beating the illness. This feeling of inadequacy and incompetence can lead entrepreneurs down a dangerous path where they start to believe that they’re letting their customers and employees down.
The important thing for all entrepreneurs to remember is that, regardless whether or not you have a mental illness, you have a team of people around you who can help shoulder the burden. Many entrepreneurs feel like they’re the life and soul of their startup, which may be true, but that shouldn’t be the case.
This is why Steve Mehr ensures that every organization he’s a part of has an advisory board of some sort. Because an entrepreneur’s job is to work on their business, not in it. You don’t need that kind of pressure, nor should you have to deal with it.
Having to do two full-time jobs: run a company and recover from mental illness
Running a company is challenging. Dealing with mental illness is also quite difficult. Doing the two of these things at the same time is extremely taxing and challenging.
When you have to run a company and recover from your mental illness at the same time, it’s easy to feel additional stress.
Entrepreneurs can deal with their mental health problems and grow their businesses at the same time, but they have to put their bodies and minds through the wear and tear of having two full-time jobs.
Rand Fishkin, in a lengthy blog post, bravely and openly talks about his depression. For him the root cause of his depression was shame. As the CEO of Moz he made a series of mistakes that he felt he should have avoided, when in reality he didn’t make any decision that any one us wouldn’t have made if put in the exact same position. His self-esteem plummeted, his internal credibility dropped, and the shame set in. Shame just feeds the monster that is depression.
Eventually he was able to rally back by having a great network of family and friends supporting him, commitment to therapy, and ultimately deciding to step down as the CEO of Moz.
A lot of people equate the entrepreneurial lifestyle to running a marathon. In this case being an entrepreneur while struggling with mental illness is like running a marathon with a huge backpack filled with rocks strapped to you. Only, try as hard as you might, you can’t take the backpack off. Often out of fear that even pausing to take some rocks out will cause you to fall out of the race completely.
Various Ways You Can Deal With Mental Illness
Unlike any other injury mental illness isn’t something that once you’re given some medication or some time it goes away completely. Unfortunately, and this may be difficult for those without it to understand, mental illness is for life. That’s why so much treatment is about learning how to manage your mental illness, rather than trying to get rid of it completely.
Here’s a great video by the World Health Organization about living with depression.
But mental illness isn’t a prison sentence, even though it can sometimes feel like it is.
With the right type of treatment anyone can learn to manage their mental illness in such a way that it doesn’t negatively affect their personal and professional lives. But it’s important to remember that treatment for mental illness is highly individual what can work for one person might not work for the other.
It takes a whole lot time and effort, as wells as huge spoonfuls of heart and courage, to go down the road of treatment. Because it can be a long process where it’ll often get worse before it gets better. I just want you to know that it is going to get better.
Here are some common ways people treat mental illness.
The most common treatment for mental illness is psychotherapy. There are many different kinds of psychotherapy, but the most prevalent and successful type of therapy for treating a broad range of mental illness is cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy’s goal is to change certain patterns of thought or behavior in people that cause their mental illness. CBT can be used to treat depression, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia, psychosis, bipolar disorder, and other forms of mental illness.
Other common forms of therapy include exposure and response prevention therapy (the primary form of therapy used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder) and interpersonal therapy (another form of therapy used to treat depression).
In his early and mid-twenties, venture capitalist Brad Feld dealt with a brutal bout of depression. At one point in his battle with depression, Brad considered committing suicide while driving and immediately pulled over and allowed his wife to take the wheel. Eventually, Brad recovered from his depression and became the person he is today.
Brad’s strong relationship with his wife Amy helped spark his recovery. He and Amy had a very open relationship, and Brad agreed to tell Amy if and when he ever had suicidal thoughts. The other major thing that helped Brad recover was therapy. After the vacation during which he had that suicidal thought while driving, Brad started therapy immediately. The combination of support from Amy and therapy allowed him to feel better and happier.
Therapy can often feel uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to be. Mental illness is like any other injury. It’s not like you wouldn’t see a doctor because you have a broken bone, so if you’re experiencing mental illness there’s no shame in seeing a counsellor, psychologist, or psychiatrist.
Psychotropic or psychiatric medications
Besides therapy, medication is the most effective and common method for treating mental illness. Different medications are used to treat different forms of mental illness, though certain medications can be used to treat multiple types of mental illness. For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are often used to treat depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
To get a more complete overview of what types of medication are used to treat different mental illnesses, check out this article by the National Institute of Mental Health.
Although be careful when it comes to medication. It’s not like it’s a magic cure that will somehow make all your problems go away. Unfortunately medication can only do so much to help you manage your mental illness, it can’t make it go away completely.
Take a look at Ryan Gray’s story where he talks about his experience with medication and antidepressants. He speaks about how they affected him and his ultimate choice to stay off them.
Now I’m not saying you should make that choice as well. Medication has moved forward in leaps and bounds, and medication is key in helping treat those with mental illness. The idea of taking medication, like therapy, can be scary too. Many don’t want to be put into a situation where they feel like they need to rely on medication in order to function. But again, like the broken bone analogy above, there’s no practical reason as to why you should refuse something that makes you better.
Exercise won’t treat certain types of mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. But, it’s an amazing tool for reducing stress and combating the symptoms and effects of anxiety disorders and depression. Countless studies have shown that exercise helps treat depression, anxiety, and stress. If you’re unsure of where to start with exercise or what to do, I’d highly recommend checking out Kinobody and NerdFitness. If you’re still unsure about how or when to exercise, just remember that going for a walk counts as exercise.
Exercise is key when it comes to preventing bouts of depression. A study conducted on 156 men and women with depression found that regular exercise was just as effective in treating depression as certain antidepressants. Those who exercise regularly are less likely to experience episodes of depression when compared to those who don’t. Prevention is always better than a cure.
There are many different types of meditation, but meditation generally refers to focusing your thoughts and attention on a single point of reference such as the breath. Meditation has been shown to reduce stress and hypertension. There’s also evidence that suggests meditation can reduce the effects and symptoms of mental illness. To get started with a meditation practice, I’d recommend checking out Headspace.
Listen in on this great conversation between Jerry Colonna and Vincent Horn where they talk about their experiences with mental illness and how meditation helps them.
Meditation, like exercise, is another form of preventative treatment. Again, and I cannot stress this enough, you won’t be able to get rid of mental illness completely. It’s a part of you. Taking small steps like meditating every day will help you manage your mental illness a lot better than constantly relying on your emergency strategy every time it gets too much to handle.
Imagine you’re at a gym and you’re lifting weights. Every day someone adds a little weight to the bar, but every day you go to the gym so you can handle it. Sometimes the bar even feels incredibly light and it’s a breeze to lift. Lifting it every day means you get stronger and stronger, so when that one day the bar is overloaded you’re strong enough to lift it instead of collapsing underneath its weight.
Just like exercise, medical marijuana won’t be effective in treating certain types of mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders. But, medical marijuana has been shown to help people who deal with depression, anxiety disorders, and PTSD. If you deal with one of those illnesses and don’t want to use traditional treatments, then medical marijuana might be good to try as an alternative.
Although, like any other drug, be incredibly careful. Also be sure to check with your local and state laws in regards to seeking medical marijuana. In no way do we advocate that you seek illegal substances as a form of treatment.
Books to help you deal with mental illness
There are thousands of books that have been written with the goal of helping people recover from mental illness. Some of these books are excellent. A few great books that will help you overcome mental illness include:
- Play It Away by Charlie Hoehn – In this book, Charlie talks about how he used play to overcome his severe anxiety and workaholism. If you’ve got crippling anxiety or depression and want to try an alternative method for treating it, then this is the book for you.
- Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE): A revolutionary new method for stress/trauma recovery by David Berceli – Charlie Hoehn recommends this book in Play it Away as another alternative method for treating anxiety, and it’s an insightful read. The author shows you a series of exercises that create mild tremors in your body to help release deep tension.
- Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by Dr. David D. Burns – This book teaches readers the basics of cognitive behavioral therapy. While reading a book like this probably won’t replace the effects of performing cognitive behavioral therapy under a trained psychologist, it can be a helpful starting point for treating mild depression or anxiety.
Online communities that provide support to entrepreneurs going through a tough time
One of the best ways to deal with mental illness is to find other people who have similar experiences to yours and connect with them. They’ll be able to direct you to resources for treating mental illness you may not have thought of and reassure you that you’re not alone in your struggles.
There are lots of online communities you can turn to if you’re struggling with mental illness as a entrepreneur. Some of these communities are specific to entrepreneurs and other communities are just for people who want to talk with others about their experiences with mental illness.
But remember at the end of the day the best way to treat your mental illness is with the close support of friends and family.
- Hacker News (HN) – Hacker News is known as a community of developers, designers, and entrepreneurs who talk about and vote on the latest news related to the technology industry. When members of the community post about their struggles with mental illness, other people in it are usually supportive. A few examples of HN being extremely supportive are this thread about someone thinking about committing suicide, someone with mental illness asking how others in the community deal with it, and someone dealing with depression asking the community for tips about treating it.
- Reddit Entrepreneur – Reddit Entrepreneur is a community of tens of thousands of entrepreneurs who ask questions about business and learn from each other. Questions or threads about entrepreneurs facing mental illness don’t come up too often on Reddit Entrepreneur, but the community is usually supportive when they do arise. A few examples of Reddit Entrepreneur being supportive are a thread with someone asking for strategies they can use to beat their depression, advice to someone who’s dealing with burnout and depression, and a thread on reducing intense stress as an entrepreneur.
- Reddit Mental Illness – The mental illness subreddit is a safe space to talk about issues related to mental illness on Reddit such as stigma, treatment, family, support, relationships, etc. Some supportive threads from this subreddit include
- Reddit Mental Health – The mental health subreddit is a safe space to talk about your experiences with mental health and mental illness. It’s also a great place to ask questions and learn more about mental illness. It has 12,000+ members.
- Subreddits for specific mental illnesses – If and when you’re diagnosed with a mental illness, you’ll likely have questions about it, your treatment options, and prognosis. If you suspect you have a particular mental illness or were recently diagnosed with a mental illness and want to connect with other people who experience it, you should check out the following communities that are relevant to you:
- Reddit Addiction
- Reddit Alcoholism
- Reddit AD(H)D
- Reddit Anxiety (General)
- Reddit Anxiety (Panic Disorders)
- Reddit Anxiety (Social Anxiety)
- Reddit Bipolar Disorder
- Reddit Borderline Personality Disorder
- Reddit Depression
- Reddit Eating Disorders
- Reddit Psychosis
- Reddit Schizophrenia
- Reddit Self Harm
- Reddit Suicide Watch
- Reddit Trauma
Using online resources to find a therapist, psychiatrist, or someone to talk to
How to Find a Psychiatrist or Psychologist Online
There are lots of excellent resources for finding a psychiatrist online. To find a psychiatrist who fits your needs and is close to where you live, I’d highly recommend checking out Psychology Today, ZocDoc, and/or WebMD. Keep in mind that a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can prescribe psychotropic medications to help treat your mental illness or mental health issues.
Some sites you should use to find a psychologist in your area who fits your needs are a search tool provided by the American Psychological Association, Find a Psychologist, and/or the National Register (a search tool for finding psychologists). Please remember that a psychologist is a licensed professional who will provide you with therapy as a way to work through your problems.
If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a particular psychologist or receiving treatment from a particular psychiatrist, let them know you’re parting ways with them and find someone else. This is a natural part of the process and your right as a patient.
Finding alternative forms of therapy online
7 Cups of Tea and BlahTherapy are two alternative forms of therapy that you can use online. 7 Cups of Tea offers free, anonymous, and confidential chat with trained volunteer listeners. If you can’t afford traditional therapy, then 7 Cups of Tea is an affordable option. Listeners set how much they charge for each call, with many listeners offering free counseling and paid listeners offering affordable counseling. BlahTherapy allows you to talk to talk with their community or with strangers for free. To talk to a therapist on BlahTherapy, you’ll have to pay $25.
Using online resources to find a social worker for therapy
You can call the number “211” for free at any time and you’ll be connected to a professional who will help you find a social worker in your area. Another good resource for finding social workers in your area is Wellness.com. While social workers don’t have as much training as psychologists, they can still talk through your problems and provide you with help. Not only can social workers act as therapists that will help you talk through your problems, but they can also help you find inexpensive and/or free psychologists and psychiatrists that will help treat your mental illness.
Some final thoughts about dealing with mental illness as an entrepreneur
As an entrepreneur, you’re under immense amounts of stress and pressure. Not only does your livelihood rest on the success of your business, but the livelihoods of your employees and their families rest on it too. While genetics play a part in people developing mental illness, high amounts of stress can also activate the genes and neural pathways required for mental illness to develop.
In an environment as stressful as a business, mental illness has a tendency to poke its nasty head and negatively affect people’s lives. If you have a mental illness, get treatment for it and focus on your health. Don’t let the stigma surrounding it prevent you from getting the help you need. After all, if the state of your mental health is bad, then your business’s health will go down the toilet too.