Mental health is synonymous with our overall wellbeing as humans. Yet often in the realms of startup our wellbeing is only measured by the growth of ones startup or the amounts of money one has raised. The entrepreneurial rat race is deep and dark, and lonely. The ‘coined’ term of the ‘valley of despair’ that most entrepreneurs experience is not a joke but a reflection of startup culture, with the valley almost a right of passage to success. However, most recent conversations and research on mental well being for entrepreneurs has surfaced the dark realities of how many in the role feel the negative impacts of mental health issues in their lives and on their effectiveness as business owners.
Research has found that 1/3 individuals will suffer a mental health issue in their lives and those numbers 50% higher as we look at the founder population. For instance, startup founders are 2x more likely to suffer from depression, 3x more likely to suffer from substance abuse and 6x more likely to suffer from ADHD.
However the pressure to maintain cool and maintain on brand has many founders shying away from having public conversations about mental health, especially their own. The stigma of mental health is alive and well, and it’s propagated through many professional circles – stratup ecosystems are not excluded. But that silence as Jessica Bruder wrote has a real psychological price.
This unspoken elephant in the room can have drastic implications on a founders life, family, and yes even their startup. The realities of being a founder are a unique set of circumstances that lead to stressors and pressures on ones physical and mental wellbeing. Stress is an underlying friend that stays with you throughout the entrepreneurial journey and can have traumatic and lifelong impacts on that individual. There are some big truths about entrepreneurship that are often glossed over and put to the side with the constant ‘glamification’ of the role and the industry. We need to be honest about the entrepreneurial journey and the experiences that founders actually have on that journey. Here are some truths that are critical in being prepared and mentally aware of what is ahead:
Entrepreneurship is hard – We often see or only celebrate the destination but the journey is where the brunt of the work is. No matter how you cut it, building a business is hard – from finding funding to finding the right team to finding your customers, to growing, to scaling, to shrinking, to pivoting. Most individuals that get into the game don’t realize how hard the journey actually is. It requires stamina and resilience and can create an environment for a founder that is filled with stressors and leads to loneliness, uncertainty, doubt, and anxiety.
Entrepreneurship is lonely – Being a startup founder can be isolating for entrepreneurs. Being the one at the top seems great until you get there and realize that you bear the responsibility of making all the decisions, bear the pressures of performance in good or bad times. That can often feel overwhelming and extremely lonely that is why having trusted advisors, mentors or even a coach could alleviate some of that social isolation and overwhelm.
Entrepreneurship is filled with uncertainty – Without a doubt running a business small or large is filled uncertainty at every corner. Someone that is eager to be an entrepreneur has to quickly become comfortable with being uncomfortable and realize that there is no certain path to success. That uncertainty although it’s a given, it can also create a lot of mental distress and anxiety for entrepreneurs who grapple with many uncertainties including where funding comes from, how to retain staff, what tomorrow will even look like.
As a startup founder, you are expected to keep it together – all the time – Regardless of the situation founders are expected to maintain a positive outlook, to keep the team together moving forward despite fires, obstacles, and failures. That can be a daunting task physically and mentally when you as a founder are feeling doubt, failure, and uncertainty. This is why we see high performing entrepreneurs often spiral out of control or to terrible lows, their external persona never reflecting the true anguish of their wellbeing. We need to accept vulnerability and authenticity as strengths not weaknesses they may save founders.
As a startup founder, your worth is interwoven with that of their startup – The pressure of performance is a reality for all founders, especially when funding and external investors are involved. Too often a founders’ individual self-worth becomes interwoven with the performance of their startup. That can be a crippling mix when things are difficult, failure is a constant, and the future is uncertain. The most important lesson is to realize that a startup while a reflection of ones values it is not synonymous with that individuals’ identity – it is critical to ensure that we separate the two and allow founders to thrive alongside their startups.
And instead of writing about all the things founders can do let’s start talking about what can we all do to support founders in our communities?
Ask them how they are doing? Most people are just seeking connection, a conversation. The smallest actions and gestures can have a monumental impact on someone’s day or life. Next time you see your founder friend make sure to ask them how they are doing. That inquiry alone can make someone feel less isolated and recognized.
Surface the conversation on mental health and wellbeing through your platforms. Mental health stigma is a societal issue that we all have a hand in putting out. The more people openly talk about mental health – its state, their own experiences, and even the impacts of it – the more normalized mental health will become. We as a society need to make mental health a priority for the well being of us all.
Bring the topic into programming – if part of your work involves working with entrepreneurs whether it’s an accelerator, an investment fund, or a support services company make sure that you consider bringing the mental health conversation to the program or interactions with entrepreneurs, provide or point entrepreneurs to mental health resources and ensure that you are creating safe spaces for all entrepreneurs to thrive in.
It is essential to stop romanticizing the role of an entrepreneur for others and ensure that we treat entrepreneurs with the care they need just like any other human.