Why Some Traits of Successful Entrepreneurs Could Exacerbate Mental Health Issues and Substance Abuse

And what to do about it.

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By Brian Hughes

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Entrepreneurs are go-getters. People who want to build a business, disrupt an industry or simply be their own bosses. The excitement of chasing the next big thing leads some people to become "serial entrepreneurs," which researcher April J. Spivack and others are investigating as a possible behavioral addiction. In addition, a few traits of some successful entrepreneurs, such as risk-taking and obsessive-compulsive behaviors, are found to be indicative of someone potentially at risk of becoming addicted to substances as well as behaviors, according to the experts at American Addiction Centers.

Entrepreneurship and Mental Health

Dr. Hokemeyer, a clinical and consulting psychotherapist, spoke at the recent World Economic Forum about entrepreneurs and mental health.

"Entrepreneurs are trained to ignore the qualitative needs of their well-being measured in meaningful and authentic relationships, overall life satisfaction and happiness," he said. "The message they have internalized from the field's most celebrated entrepreneurs is the outdated prescription of 'no pain, no gain' and a pernicious message that success is purely measured in quantitative returns, return on investment and profit."

In other words, it's not far-fetched that the basic entrepreneurial structure could potentially lead to or exacerbate mental health issues such as addiction and depression.

Potential for Addiction

Addiction is a complex condition that's broadly viewed as a compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli. Someone addicted to drugs or alcohol may be seeking a certain high, relaxation or oblivion. And if it's possible for someone to be "addicted" to entrepreneurship, the compulsion could ostensibly be to chase that next venture regardless of past failures, damage to relationships or financial ruin.

In addition to addiction, the results of a study performed at the University of San Francisco by researcher Michael A. Freeman suggested that almost half of entrepreneurs experienced at least one form of mental health condition during their lifetime. This research documented that when comparing startup founders to the general population, they could potentially be:

  • Twice as likely to suffer from depression
  • Six times more likely to suffer from ADHD
  • Three times more likely to suffer from substance abuse
  • 10 times more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder
  • Twice as likely to have experienced a psychiatric hospitalization
  • Twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts

Many people, among them some entrepreneurs, struggle with these issues, and it's important to reach out for help. A list of avaliable resources is included at the end of this article.

Potential for Behavioral Addiction

It's possible that some traits that can contribute to entrepreneurial success could also further an addiction if left unchecked. Obsession can be a struggle for people with this mental health challenge. As a result of hyper-focus on a businesses, competition and next project, it's possible to ignore family, personal health and financial stability.

Compulsion can be another key component of this illness, often manifesting in the need to start the new project before assuring that the current business is stable and successful, according to Dr. Peter J. Economou, founder of The Counseling Wellness Center. People who may be addicted to entrepreneurship could also often become frustrated with non-work related tasks.

Potential for Substance Addiction

As noted above, it's possible that entrepreneurs are at significantly higher risk of substance abuse than the general population. Entrepreneurs often experience a continual and significant level of stress, can experience loneliness and sometimes have a strong fear of failure. As the head of an organization, it is often an entrepreneur's role to monitor the behavior of others to assure that it doesn't damage the business, but there's likely no one to do the same for them. It's feasible that all of these elements could come together create a perfect environment for substance abuse.

The potentially lonely nature of entrepreneurship, along with the need to be viewed as strong and successful, could contribute to developing an alcohol addiction, according to the experts at Behavioral Rehabilitation Services. Another way that people sometimes turn to substance abuse is after treatment for an injury. The pain reliever can shift from a health benefit to an addiction. In Silicon Valley, some business founders are seeking to gain a competitive edge through the use of quasi-legal stimulants and "brain boosters," and it's likely that some of them soon find themselves relying on these stimulants to the detriment of their health.

Support and Treatment

It may be possible to reverse some effects of entrepreneurial behavioral addiction through self-care and awareness, but it's important to seek out help, support and treatment to help ensure mental and physical safety. If you are experiencing depression, addiction or suicidal thoughts, stop reading and call 1-800-273-8255 (suicide prevention) or 1-800-662-4357 (treatment and referral for mental health issues or substance abuse) to reach the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. There are also many treatment options around the country, including those in Florida, California, New York and Minnesota, that can provide substance and behavioral addiction services to support recovery.

Bottom Line

Being an entrepreneur can be exciting, challenging and rewarding. However, it's possible that the process of launching a company can also contribute to damage to physical and mental health. For some, the traits that help make them great entrepreneurs could also place them at greater risk of substance abuse or mental health struggles. If you find yourself dealing with addiction or other mental health challenges, please seek treatment.

Brian Hughes

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

CEO of Integrity Marketing & Consulting

Brian Hughes is the founder and CEO of Integrity Marketing & Consulting, where he helps his clients build powerful brands through inbound marketing. He is a frequent contributor to several other sites.

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