Our Lonely Shared Struggles with Mental Health
Founder’s experiences riding the emotional startup curve
Most founders know Paul Graham’s startup curve and its dreaded trough of sorrow. Yet few founders anticipate the turns of the emotional roller coaster that follows. They’re not prepared because we in the startup community don’t talk openly about mental health issues, even though almost 50% of founders struggle with one.*
This is changing, however, as founders reveal their personal encounters with anxiety, depression, and suicide through stories. Blogposts by entrepreneurs including Brad Feld, Ben Huh, Rand Fishkin, and Tim Ferriss bring mental health into public conversations. Their admissions encourage us to talk about our mental health struggles with other founders. Many times, our friends and colleagues respond by sharing personal stories of their own. Vulnerability has an odd domino effect: the more we share secrets, the easier it gets to share them–and the more we wonder why we kept them secret in the first place.
We tend to talk about mental health in small, private groups. Two founders grab coffee to vent and realize that they’re both managing crippling anxiety. One founder mentors a friend-of-a-friend through a crisis that they’ve been through themselves. Peers gather together in confidential support groups held by coaching organizations like Innerspace to talk about setbacks, cofounder breakups, and company shutdowns. Most of us, however, struggle alone.
We’re trying to change that at Kip. Our mission is to make mental health treatment more effective and more accessible–and that starts by creating opportunities to talk about mental health issues in our own community. The more we share, the more we’ll all realize how normal–and treatable–our struggles are. We want to live in a world where we talk about mental health issues as casually and treat them as fiercely as we do the flu. Which we should; suicide and the flu kill roughly the same number of Americans each year.
We’re launching an interview series in this spirit, featuring founders and their experiences navigating the ups and downs of startup life. The interviews expose what it feels like to be in a negative place so that, if you’re in that place, you’ll know that you’re not alone, recognize that it’s completely normal, and learn about the many ways in which you can get help.
Read the first interview:
In interviewing founders, we’ve uncovered patterns in how they experience anxiety and depression:
#1. Founders recognize anxiety and depression as a decrease in their productivity
Mental health issues are hard to identify. Changes manifest gradually; we rarely wake up happy one day and clinically depressed the next. We’re taught language to describe broken bones as children but not anxiety or depression. For most, we discover that we’re dealing with a mental health issue only after recognizing a physical symptom like insomnia, a loss of appetite, or extreme fatigue. For founders, the first thing that they notice is a drop in their productivity–the currency through which they live their lives. They stop being able to get things done like they used to; they can’t write code as quickly and take longer to make decisions. This stalls the company, which feeds the cycle of anxiety and depression, and only makes things worse.
#2. Founders budget and plan for everything except their emotional well-being
I remember the steps that I took before starting a company. I trimmed my budget, took out an interest-free credit card, scheduled a haircut (investor pitches!), and joined a gym. I planned for my financial and physical health and cared for my personal appearance, but I forgot to practice self-care. I didn’t restart my meditation habit, make time for friends, or take days off. Lack of self-care is the breeding ground for anxiety and depression. Even the smallest stressors overwhelm us when we don’t have the mental space to process stress and find healthy ways to cope.
#3. Founder anxiety and depression are predictable–and therefore manageable
Imagine a rubber band, steadily and slowly pulled apart. The tension builds with every move, never released, until the pressure is so great that the band snaps. This is how many founders plunge into clinical anxiety and depression. Stress increases as runway shortens. It wears you down gradually and is easy to overlook until it’s too late. Sometimes an unexpected event triggers a mental health crisis–a cofounder breakup or investor pulling out of a deal–but more often, it’s a predictable inevitability.
Patterns are important because they’re warning signs that we can watch out for in ourselves and others. Through sharing more stories, more patterns will emerge.
Read the first interview:
Need help now? You’re not alone. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273-TALK. It’s available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and is staffed by crisis response professionals.