It's Time for Startup Culture to Talk About Mental Health
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
It was 2001, and Ben Huh was deeply depressed. His first start-up had failed, taking hundreds of thousands in investor money with it. His loneliness was all-encompassing; his will to live zapped.
“I spent a week in my room with the lights off and cut off from the world, thinking of the best way to exit this failure,” he wrote years later. “Death was a good option—and it got better by the day.”
Huh doesn’t know what exactly made him leave that room in the end, but he did. He eventually became the CEO of the wildly successful Cheezburger Network, but it wasn’t until 2011 that he opened up about his depression, spurred by the suicide of Diaspora founder Ilya Zhitomirskiy.
“My post is about everyone suffering (through depression) quietly,” Huh told Mashable. Zhitomirskiy, like Huh, likely felt a deep sense of isolation and aloneness—and he didn’t have to. “From a long line of entrepreneurs who suffered alone and quietly under our own self-doubt, I wish I could talk to you and tell you to bash the shit out of your own self-doubt,” he wrote in his blog post.
Too often, entrepreneurs don’t pay enough attention to their mental health, and startup culture is notoriously reticent on the topic. The combination can be deadly, and it needs to change.
Why entrepreneurs are susceptible
An entrepreneur’s mindset can be the perfect habitat for depression and anxiety to take hold.
For one thing, the nature of our work is deeply stressful. The popular conception of an entrepreneur is someone who is constantly sleep-deprived and frazzled, hunched over a keyboard in an empty office surrounded by coffee cups and fast food wrappers. Mental health often goes by the wayside—and that’s assuming we have the resources, like insurance, to seek help, which many of us do not.
Then there’s solitude. Building a startup can be lonely work, especially when it feels every moment not spent on the goal is being wasted, which leaves little time to maintain healthy connections with family and friends. So much isolation also lends itself to what Megan Bruneau, host of the podcast The Failure Factor, calls “impression management”—the idea that we have to appear as though we have it all together.
“Many entrepreneurs believe that, in order to be considered competent by stakeholders, we need to be perceived as infallible—a stark contrast to the stigmatized stereotypes of a person with compromised mental health,” she writes. This perpetuates shame and disconnection—which cause depression—and discourages help-seeking.
Lastly, there’s the matter of our identities. When you dedicate yourself so completely to something, it can become impossible to tell where you end and the business begins, and we begin to detach from our own needs.
“The looming existential void (and self-worth tied to our company's success) is a manifestation of perfectionism that causes both anxiety and an emotional roller coaster—dependent on our everchanging company forecast,” Bruneau writes. And when your personal worth is tied to something as unpredictable as a startup, what happens when it fails?
The stigma of talking about mental health
Despite alarming statistics about the pervasiveness of mental health struggles in the startup world, talking about it still carries a stigma. Complicating matters is that many disorders, like anxiety and depression, aren’t always apparent to others, so it’s hard to know when someone is struggling.
But poor mental health can happen to anyone, executive, staff or intern. As leaders, it’s up to us to create a culture where discussion of mental wellbeing is treated with openness, not shame. We also need to walk the walk by making sure we’re respecting employees’ work-life balance. For example, not expecting an immediate reply to an email sent at 2 a.m., and actively encouraging employees to disconnect during vacations and weekends.
For founders, the enormous stress and pressure to hit targets is all but unavoidable, Jess Ratcliffe, a personal development coach to several startups and brands, tells Forbes. Historically, there’s been an overemphasis on short-term success over longevity, but luckily, that’s starting to change.
“Over the last few years, I’ve noticed founders becoming increasingly aware of the importance of their mental wellbeing. I see more founders working with coaches and even supporting their team with access to coaching,” she says. “This is incredibly exciting and will positively impact the founder, team and mission they are on.”
Knowing when to get help
In her book Employee to Entrepreneur, Suzanne Mulvehill writes that, “preparing the mind, body and spirit for entrepreneurship is like preparing the mind, body and spirit for the Olympics.”
Getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising regularly are all great practices to take care of your wellbeing. It’s also a good idea to check in with yourself about how you’re feeling. Jon Dishotsky, CEO and cofounder of Starcity, writes for Fast Company that, “hitting bottom isn’t always a dramatic crash. Sometimes it’s a slow sink to the bottom.”
Maybe you’ve felt a general sense of malaise, or just not feeling like yourself. Maybe you’re more tired than usual, but aren’t sure why. Maybe there are more acute physical symptoms, like a tightness in your chest or a weight in the pit of your stomach. Your body can signal to you when something is wrong, even before your conscious mind is clued in.
Ratcliffe agrees. Founders should look out for warning signs, like finding yourself feeling slowed down by self-doubt, or pulled off-course by your own mental narratives. “One of the most powerful things is to proactively work on your mental wellbeing, rather than waiting for the time when it feels like you need help,” she says.
The good news is, help is all around you. Reach out to a trusted friend or colleague, or find an online support network like 7 Cups of Tea, a peer-to-peer online counseling platform.
It’s also incumbent upon entrepreneurs to be honest about their journeys, warts and all. If you struggled for years with your business before finally achieving a breakthrough, don’t create the false impression that your success came quickly or easily. I often talk about how my company, JotForm, is bootstrapped, and how I grew it slowly over the years to the more than 8 million users we have today. Going it without VC funding and refusing the mainstream "startup hustle" advice hasn’t been an easy journey, and I don’t want anyone to get the idea that it didn’t come without lots of hard work, ups and downs, and lots of trial and error.
Building a company is hard—mentally, physically and emotionally. There are steps we can take every day to help ourselves survive in such an extreme environment, but we also need to look out for each other. By acknowledging our own difficulties and supporting one another, we can make the startup world a less hostile place for everyone.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741