Have you ever taken a mental health day from work? According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately one in five adults in the U.S. (46.6 million) experiences mental illness in a given year. That means it is highly likely that you or someone you know is suffering and needs help. Because of its prevalence, mental health issues have a significant impact on the workplace. Research shows that mental disorders, particularly depression, have a profound effect on business productivity—even greater than physical disorders. In fact, serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year. Mental health issues are also the single greatest cause of worker disability in the U.S. While these statistics are disturbing, studies show they are even worse for entrepreneurs. It’s time for entrepreneurs to acknowledge the risks, eliminate the stigma and take preventative action around mental health.
Entrepreneurs suffer mental illness at higher than average rates. According to a study by Michael Freeman, a psychiatrist, psychologist and former CEO who serves on the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, entrepreneurs are 50% more likely to report having a mental health condition, with some specific conditions being more prevalent among founders. A whopping 72% of entrepreneurs surveyed self-reported mental health concerns.
According to the research, entrepreneurs are:
- 2X more likely to suffer from depression
- 6X more likely to suffer from ADHD
- 3X more likely to suffer from substance abuse
- 10X more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder
These statistics aren’t just alarming; they are downright scary. The question is why do entrepreneurs have a higher propensity to experience mental health challenges?
There are many reasons that founders have a higher risk of developing mental health issues. Here are just a few:
- Stress: Not surprisingly, starting a business is incredibly stressful! With that stress comes a whole host of other problems like working non-stop, sleepless nights, ignoring a regular workout regimen and eating unhealthily (or worse, skipping meals). Essentially, self-care gets thrown right out the window.
- Isolation: Being an entrepreneur, especially a solopreneur, can be very isolating. Typically, in the early stages of starting a business, entrepreneurs wear multiple hats and juggle a mountain of priorities. It’s also likely that they are surrounded by friends and family living a nine-to-five existence who don’t necessarily understand the entrepreneurial struggle. One study from researchers at the University of North Carolina revealed that loneliness could “vastly elevate” a person’s risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer, making it as dangerous to your health as a lack of physical inactivity in youth or diabetes in old age. Isolation can also compound the risk of depression.
- Predisposition: According to Michael Freeman’s previously mentioned study, the entrepreneurs also reported having more mental illness in their immediate families than the control group. This suggests that traits that drive entrepreneurship might be inherited and linked to mental disorders. The flip side is that some conditions have benefits that help founders succeed. Michael Freeman confirms this by saying, “These mental health conditions are accompanied by positive traits that enable entrepreneurs to excel. If you have ADHD, two of the positive traits are a need for speed and an interest in exploration and recognizing opportunities. [You have] an ability to act without getting stuck with analysis paralysis.”
The stigma around mental health creates an environment of fear and silence that prevents people from getting treatment. The first way to stop the stigma around mental illness and entrepreneurs is to start talking about it. By having open conversations about mental health, we can raise awareness and educate the entrepreneurial community including venture capitalists, investors, founders and entrepreneurs. It’s also essential to create an environment where founders and entrepreneurs can speak candidly about their challenges. Fortunately, more and more entrepreneurs are speaking out about emotional well-being and making it clear that entrepreneurs aren’t immune to mental health challenges. One example is Corey Miller, founder of iThemes. Miller started sharing his mental health journey publicly in 2015 and even created a blog focused on mental health. In a very personal post called “When Death Feels Like a Good Option,” Ben Huh, the CEO and founder of Cheezburger, wrote about his suicidal thoughts following a failed startup in 2001. Then there’s Sean Percival, a former MySpace vice president and cofounder of the children’s clothing startup Wittlebee. He wrote a piece on his website directed towards founders called, “When It’s Not All Good, Ask for Help.”
Being an entrepreneur can be grueling, but there are preventative measures that can be taken to preserve a healthy mental outlook. As Suzanne Mulvehill describes in her book, Employee to Entrepreneur, “preparing the mind, body and spirit for entrepreneurship is like preparing the mind, body and spirit for the Olympics.” With the ups and downs associated with entrepreneurship, it is critical to practice self-care. Some of the obvious ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle include exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, meditating and getting enough sleep. Studies have even found that spending time walking in nature has helped people become happier and more attentive. As an entrepreneur, it is also crucial to have a reliable support system. This includes not only friends and family but also mentors and coaches. Mastermind groups are another great way to share business and personal struggles. The fellow entrepreneurs in a mastermind group have a deep understanding of the issues you’re facing and can provide valuable insights or solutions. Most importantly, be honest with yourself and don’t hesitate to reach out for support when needed.
The tragic losses of talented entrepreneurs like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain confirm that mental illness can affect anyone at any stage in their career. More often than not, entrepreneurs try to exude extreme confidence and optimism at all times. Unfortunately, that means that when things go sideways, they end up suffering in silence. Part of what gives mental illness its power is the shame and the need to conceal those feelings. In her famous Ted Talk, Brené Brown speaks eloquently about how vulnerability can eradicate shame. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s an act of courage. By embracing vulnerability, entrepreneurs can finally free themselves from shame, get the help they need and empower others to do the same.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.