Why entrepreneurs can't afford to neglect their mental health
Part of our series on the future of small business in America
The internet is packed with self-help articles about how to start your own business. But there's a glaring hole amidst the many listicle reminders to be confident, determined, flexible, and, of course, open to taking risks. What's too often left out of the conversation are the potential side effects of starting a new business: failure, humiliation, and the mental health problems those events may exacerbate.
Mental health should be a chief concern for everybody, of course. But researchers say it's something entrepreneurs in particular should pay more attention to. A recent unpublished study by University of California researchers shows that entrepreneurs self-report mental health conditions like depression, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, and ADHD in themselves and their families more frequently than the general population does.
This is a relatively unexplored phenomenon; only about a half dozen studies have taken a stab at evaluating the prevalence of mental illness among entrepreneurs. Psychologist John Gartner, for one, argues that a large majority of entrepreneurs have a condition called hypomania. It's a mild form of mania marked in fully functional people by euphoria, endless energy, and creativity, but also irritability, impatience, and arrogance.
Gartner's views are hardly the conventional wisdom. But there is something of a consensus on the personality traits common among entrepreneurs. People who start their own businesses tend to be extroverted and confident. They aren't particularly anxious, and they're moderately agreeable and able to compromise. Naturally, they're optimistic and open to taking risks. But that optimism, coupled with risk-taking, is what gets young entrepreneurs into trouble.
"If you tell an early-stage entrepreneur that the odds are that five out of six, your company is going to fail, they'll say, 'Yeah, I know that, but mine is the one that's going to succeed,'" said Michael Freeman, a psychologist and psychiatrist at the University of California San Francisco who worked on the study about mental health self-reporting in entrepreneurs.
Often, those confident young entrepreneurs are wrong. And when they're proven wrong, they may become depressed. It's tough to say whether the sting of failure leads to depression, or whether depressive tendencies make failure more likely. Either way, it's a troubling phenomenon. Freeman has seen the public humiliation that can follow failed ventures drive all too many entrepreneurs toward suicide.
The die-hard, recklessly optimistic entrepreneurship culture historically doesn't leave room for people to share their doubts, regrets, and vulnerabilities, Freeman says. But slowly, people are working to change that. Brad Feld, a long-time entrepreneur who has started several venture capital firms, has been outspoken about his bouts with depression. He talked to the Denver Business Journal about the shame that accompanies sadness in the start-up community:
Initially it was extremely hard. When I was in my mid-20s, running a successful company and clinically depressed, I was afraid to talk to anyone other than my psychiatrist about it. I was ashamed that I was even seeing a psychiatrist. I was afraid people wouldn’t take me seriously, or would stop respecting me, if I talked about how bad I was feeling. [Denver Business Journal]
Feld eventually took his mental health history public because he knew his peers were struggling to accept similar setbacks in themselves. In the same spirit, but on a much larger scale, Silicon Valley has played host to a conference called FailCon, which is exactly what it sounds like. During the annual one-day event, the start-up community has gathered since 2009 to discuss topics usually off limits: what went wrong and all the negative emotions that go along with seeing a venture sink.
Freeman thinks the government could do more to boost awareness of the mental health challenges associated with entrepreneurship. The Small Business Association, for example, could incorporate basic self-care lessons into their incubators, as well as in the literature they offer to small business owners.
But the most reliable and effective solutions come from entrepreneurs themselves. It's important to know what you're getting into and what strategies will be helpful when times get tough.
Psychologists recommend knowing your family history of mental illnesses as well as maintaining a healthy self-awareness about risk factors in yourself. As life gets hectic with longer hours, keep basic routines in place: a healthy diet, exercise, and plenty of sleep. Meditate, if that helps. Find peers who support you and a mentor who will make your battles his or her own. Most importantly, avoid making the success or failure of your business the defining feature of your identity as a person. Work isn't everything.
Starting your own business can be exhilarating, even life-changing. But professional success can feel hollow if there's no support system in place to keep your personal health afloat. The key is in acknowledging and treating the stressful obstacles in your way as much as you celebrate the high points.