Let’s Get Real About Startups And Mental Health

Depression is everyone’s problem

By Christina Wallace


Business Insider recently published a piece on the dark side of founderism that is rarely discussed: depression and other mental health issues.

Good. We need to talk about this.

But every story, every quote, every example in the piece is of a man (and almost exclusively white men). Writer Biz Carson cites three tragic suicides: Austen Heinz, Aaron Swartz, and Jody Sherman. She talks about Brad Feld’s blogging openly about his struggles with depression. She mentions 7 Cups of Tea, a Y Combinator-backed startup focused on online mental health, also founded by a man.

But she did no interviews with female founders about how they deal with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. No mention of Y Combinator-backed In Your Corner, founded by mental health professional (and woman) Bea Arthur. No interviews from minority founders about how they face all of the usual pressures of startups — and then have to shoulder the burden of being the only one / paving the way for those after them / representing their entire group in a sea of default whiteness.

This is a problem. This is not a story that can or should be told exclusively through the experience of white men. No story in the world of tech and entrepreneurship should be, of course, but particularly with respect to mental health we are leaving out huge, important swaths of the experience when we exclude women and people of color. The public good requires that we talk about it — and that we talk about all of it.

This is not a story that can or should be told exclusively through the experience of white men.

This is not about quotas or tokenism, it’s about reality — and accuracy. Carson includes a quote from Ben Huh, founder of Cheezburger:

There’s lots of people who go through depression without access to support. We are not those people. What creates that barrier to support is that notion that a CEO is a strong, tough male figure who acts masculine and doesn’t ask for help or assistance.

This is problematic. The notion that a CEO is a “strong, tough male figure who acts masculine and doesn’t ask for help or assistance.” This archetype is helping no one. It’s not helping anyone who isn’t a “strong, tough male figure” — like a woman, or a man who doesn’t identify as “strong” or “tough” — but it’s also not helping men who DO identify as strong and tough.

When strong, tough, and male is the only vision of what a successful founder looks like everybody loses.

One way to break this entrenched ideal is to be aware of the voices we amplify and the stories we highlight to ensure a multiplicity of models is visible. (This is why the all-male panels and top 10 lists and bylines are problematic.)

Another is to take our mental health as seriously as we take our physical health. In a community that embraces Soylent and #lifehacks it is surprising that we so grossly ignore or downplay our mental health.

The Business Insider article reveals some astounding facts: while only 7% of the general population report suffering from depression, a whopping 30% of founders report facing it. And broadening the conversation to all mental health issues (including anxiety, ADHD, and other conditions) the proportion of founders dealing with these issues expands to 49%.

Even more surprising: the vast majority of founders (72%) is facing some kind of mental health issue or has a family history of one — making them more prone to develop one at some point.

Not included in the piece are two other relevant stats: while men are more likely to commit suicide, women are 3x more likely to attempt. And women are 70% more likely to experience depression during their lifetime. So this is clearly a conversation we need to have with the entire community.

The ideal of the strong, tough, male founder who needs no help is a lie. We all need help of one kind or another. No one is strong enough to survive the founder rollercoaster on her own.

I applaud Carson for starting this conversation, but she missed a real opportunity to blow this myth off of its pedestal.

So I’m going to give it a shot.

I’m not a reporter, nor a mental health expert. I am a founder, based in New York’s tech community, who had a venture-backed startup that failed. My co-founder and I didn’t have a soft landing or a quiet fade into the acquihire sunset; we flat-out failed with a bang — which garnered us a gleefully written company obit by the very same Business Insider and, two years later, a much more nuanced set of Harvard Business School case studies by professor Tom Eisenmann.

When my startup, Quincy, was on the brink I fell into a funk. I don’t know if it was a true, clinical case of depression. I didn’t see a professional during that period so I have no way to know. What I do know is that I crawled into bed and didn’t leave for three weeks. I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t leave my bed, except to answer the door when the occasional Seamless delivery arrived. I watched all seven seasons of The West Wing top to bottom and I sobbed.

I mourned the end of my company. I also mourned the death of the grandmother who raised me, which had occurred just three weeks prior. And — if we’re being totally honest here — I was mourning the end of my relationship with my co-founder and friend (though happily that turned out to be only temporary).

But the end of my company wasn’t the first time I’d felt this way. There were so many moments throughout the nearly two years that we built Quincy where I cried myself to sleep. I had friends to talk with — fellow founders to commiserate with, grad school friends who took me to dinner and were kind enough to pick up the check, and exes who were still friendly enough to take a call and talk me off a proverbial ledge.

But as In Your Corner’s Bea Arthur told me, “Therapy isn’t for people who don’t have a lot of friends. Therapy is for people who do have a lot of friends. Because your friends care about you and don’t want you to feel bad, and they don’t want to struggle with you — which is just a human defense. It’s a very big responsibility. There’s a reason there’s a minimum two year training period for mental health professionals.”

She should know — she has a dual masters in clinical psychology and counseling from Columbia University. That’s why she founded In Your Corner — a platform for video calls with licensed therapists and certified coaches. (Full disclosure: I am a client and love it.)

It’s not just about talking. It’s about talking to someone who can actually help you.

The other side of taking mental health seriously is puncturing the perception that founders aren’t human; that startups aren’t emotional rollercoasters; and that the only possible response to “How are things going?” is “We’re crushing it!”

Cindy Gallop is probably one of the best-known women in tech out there. She’s not only a powerhouse founder and global public speaker, she’s also the very public face of #startupstress, a hashtag she coined and uses regularly on social media to be more open about “how difficult life is when you are slogging your guts out to make your startup successful.”

I want everyone to know that the same shit happens to all of us. Nobody is having an easy time of it, but when you’re doing something really worthwhile, you need the solidarity of knowing others are having an equally unpleasant time in order to get you through it.

I asked her if she ever had issues with partners or investors (or even employees) because of how transparent she is about her rollercoaster. I know I often felt the pressure to keep up the façade of success because I didn’t want to worry my team or give off the impression that I couldn’t handle it.

Cindy was pointed in her response to that query: “If you find this [transparency] problematic, you’re not my kind of investor / partner. I’m not trying to put up a façade or maintain a cheery face; my life building a sextech startup and trying to raise funding for it is absolute hell, and I don’t care who knows it.”

Writer and founder Lizzie Skurnick took an even more radical approach to transparency with her post for Dame Magazine on her choice to take anti-depressants during her pregnancy. She lays bare the hypocritical reaction many people have to the news that someone is getting help: “When you’re on meds, you only get credit for being crazy, not for being a person sane and responsible enough to take the meds you need.”

She also makes a strong case for seeking mental health resources before the point that you need to employ them. Everyone should “have access to therapeutic check-ins — especially because, as any depressive can tell you, the worst time to find a doctor is in the throes of a depressive episode.”

But not every female founder feels comfortable enough to be so open. Allyson Downey, founder of Techstars-backed WeeSpring, understands the pressure: “I’d argue it is harder for a woman to ask for help because we’re already operating at a disadvantage: [the] perception that women aren’t as qualified / competent / level as men.” There is also added stress from being a female founder with kids, with the ever-looming charge that maybe she just can’t handle it all. “I feel like I need to be especially tough and really can’t show weakness.”

But an inauthentic projection of success can lead to even stronger internalization of failure. Cindy Gallop understands that well. “Stress arises when you are not able to be who you are and you’re forced to adopt a different persona / approach that isn’t yours. So I find I am able to handle stress much more effectively when I can be open and honest about just how much of it I’m under.”

The more we can welcome a panoply of models for what a successful founder looks like, the more each founder can approach their work in a way that is authentic and honest to who they are. Can we please retire the “strong, tough, male” founder stencil once and for all?

We’ll all be healthier when we do.

Christina Wallace is the founding director of BridgeUp: STEM at the American Museum of Natural History, a new program addressing the gender and opportunity gap in computer science. Follow her on Twitter at @cmwalla.

Edited by Rachel Sklar. Photo used with permission by Kate Gardiner.