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Preventing Startup Suicide. Literally.

Preventing Startup Suicide. Literally.

Brad Feld

Image credit: Foundry Group

Entrepreneurs aren’t likely to talk openly about their mental health, according to Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas, CEO and co-Founder of the Carson J. Spencer Foundation, a suicide prevention organization that focuses on entrepreneurship. But, when famously successful investor and entrepreneur Brad Feld started talking openly and blogging about his mental health, entrepreneurs and startup communities began to rally around these important issues.

Related: Slowly But Surely, More Entrepreneurs Are Coming Out About Depression, Seeking Support Online

Sharing the ups and downs of entrepreneurship and mental health

You would think that depression among entrepreneurs is tied to failure, or perhaps workload and stress. But the truth is that many entrepreneurs struggle with mental health issues in all types of entrepreneurial situations.

In a packed auditorium in my startup-friendly community of Boulder, Colorado, Feld shared his own experiences with successful early-stage investing and depression. He also offered advice for entrepreneurs who face depression and mental health issues, no matter where they are on their entrepreneurial journey.

Feld began with his own story, explaining how he had started his first company while a student at MIT and had first suffered depression at age 24. His company became successful, and he found himself working 100 hours a week while still at MIT, enrolled in a graduate program. He experienced a good deal of anxiety and was encouraged by a colleague to seek professional help.

But therapy was a problem because of the shame he associated with it; he actually decided that he had a "defect." And, like many entrepreneurs, he also came to the realization that the shame associated with depression was worse than the depression itself.

As the years went by, Feld met his wife Amy, and moved to Boulder in 1995, where he found yet more success but still suffered bouts of depression and even thought about suicide. 

He found ways to deal with his depression, but in 2012 it peaked again. By that time, he was a successful investor, had published two books, started a book tour and was heavy into fitness, literally running marathons, including a 50-mile supermarathon.

Related: 7 Low-Cost Steps to Help Employees Suffering Workplace Depression

Then more misfortune struck: He was in a bike accident, which ended in hospitalization and surgery. But he didn’t take sufficient time for recovery because of what he called his compulsive tendencies, which proved to be a hazardous mix when combined with his love for building successful startup communities and high growth companies.

Then, during a business trip which involved a lengthy hotel stay, his depression came on strong, and Feld at last decided to go public -- to write and speak about his mental health. He said he turned in that direction because he felt he wasn’t being true to himself or the entrepreneurs who followed his startup advice; he wanted to share with them what he had learned about mental health. He also wanted to help destigmatize the shame he felt was associated with depression in the entrepreneurship community.

Here are some of the strategies Feld outlined in his speech:

1. Don’t be ashamed if you’re depressed or have a history of mental health issues.

Depression happens to extraordinary people and it’s something you can work through if you treat it like a hurdle instead of a defect.

2. Learn how to fail by talking with others who have experienced failure.

Leverage colleagues, support groups and professional coaches. Startup life demands periods of intensity, but those periods aren’t sustainable. Everyone has a different limit when it comes to stress and workload. The key is to know your own limits and realize when your work is suffering.

Feld said he takes one week off per quarter at a minimum to recharge but suggested that each individual identify his or her own method for recharging. Examples include resting, going off the grid, regular meditation and therapy.

3. Don’t compare yourself to others or model your life after the outward appearance of successful people.

Learn how to be comfortable in your own skin and ask yourself if you’re getting the right things done instead of dwelling on what others have done and how they appear to make things happen.

4. Spend time with yourself, not just by yourself.

Spend some time each day or a few days each month focusing on understanding your natural tendencies that don’t have a governor. For example, you might meditate 20 minutes per day.

(Feld added comically that entrepreneurs needn’t have a goal of being the best at meditating.) Spending time with yourself allows you to evaluate whether you have compulsive tendencies so you can figure out how to moderate them. Every day, Feld said, he gives at least one hour to himself for his own reflection.

5. Don’t tie your identity or self worth to your company.

Keep an appropriate sense of responsibility and don’t feel responsible for everyone and everything.

6. If you’re a CEO, realize that the main thing you can control are the cultural norms of the company.

Those norms spread through the company. Define and articulate the norms when you’re small and hire the people who share and embrace the norms. Be explicit and realize that there aren’t any sets of cultural norms that are perfect for every company.

7. If you’re married, have a 'life dinner' at least once a month with your spouse.

Feld starts his own life dinners by exchanging gifts; then he and his wife talk about what happened in the previous month, what’s happening currently and what will happen the next month. The two continue talking until they feel that they understand each other and have each other’s backs.

Overall, Feld emphasized that there are no perfect solutions and that any method could be valid for helping individuals overcome different kinds of feelings and issues. No method is a guarantee of completely overcoming a mental health issue, he said.

Final thoughts

Feld closed his talk with one more important point. He said that startups have had the wind at their backs for years and that from here on, it might not be as easy to raise that next round of funding, given today’s investment climate.

While he said he had no idea whether there would be a down cycle, or more entrepreneurs would face depression as a result, he reminded the audience that startup success depends on what you do, no matter what the macro-economics are.

Companies will fail, Feld pointed out. Companies will succeed. That happens in every economic climate. The key for taking care of your mental health is to understand that when things get stressful, the noise goes up.

So, don’t let all your emotional energy get wrapped up in the noise, Feld said. Make sure you focus on what you can control, even when things feel out of control.

Related: 4 Ways Entrepreneurs Can Defeat Depression

Additional Resources