The peaks of entrepreneurship are stuff of legends — landing big funding rounds, signing a monster client, a huge buyout, a successful IPO, the list goes on in the dreams of all would-be founders. But what doesn’t get celebrated, or often even acknowledged, is that the lows are likely just as, if not more, frequent, as the highs — and can be devastating.
One study published this year by researchers from Berkeley, Stanford and Columbia found that “entrepreneurs reported experiencing more depression (30 percent), ADHD (29 percent), substance use (12 percent), and bipolar disorder (11 percent) than comparison [non-entrepreneur] participants.”
It’s not hard to see why entrepreneurs might experience anxiety or depression more often than the average individual: founders face chronic pressure, loneliness, uncertainly, and an extremely heavy workload.
And, there’s now a growing cadre of scientists who suggest that those who are genetically more pre-disposed to becoming an entrepreneur — creative, high-driven individuals whom common vernacular might call “Type A” — are also pre-disposed to mental health issues.
All of the above is why, according to mental health advocate Shanti Das, putting even more of a focus on self-care is absolutely critical for this subset of the population.
In her 20-year career as an entertainment executive, Das worked for major labels with household names like Outkast, Akon and Ashanti. In 2010, the now-entrepreneur and consultant published “The Hip-Hop Professional: A Woman’s Guide to Climbing the Ladder of Success in the Entertainment Business,” a guide based on her own career.
But Das’s story is not that of a smooth road to success — following a childhood marred by her father’s suicide, she experienced her own debilitating depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. She now spends much of her time on Silence the Shame, a mental health organization under the umbrella of the non-profit she founded.
“You need tools along the day to cope with the things that being an entrepreneurs is going to throw your way,” Das explains. Part of her work with Silence the Shame is to open the dialogue and break down this toolkit for companies — she has worked with the NBA, Georgia Power and Lyft, to name a few.
As an entrepreneur herself, Das gave a unique perspective to a founder-focused mental health panel, held in partnership with the Advanced Technology Development Center, for National Suicide Prevention Month. She spoke with Hypepotamus to provide some insight into how to design your work and life to encourage better mental health, as well as what to do when it comes to what 90 percent of entrepreneurs face at least once — failure.
Getting rid of the stigma
This concept is what “Silence the Shame” hones in on — the stigma surrounding mental health that exists in today’s business and social climate. This viral video from ATTN speaks to this: you would never shame a colleague for not going to the office if he had a cold, or a friend for not going out if he was injured. But often, people are shamed for their mental health challenges.
“People are still so nonchalant, and the shame and stigma are still there, especially in business,” says Das. “No one wants to be seen as weak, or that they can’t handle their problems.”
She suggests combatting this by taking a leadership role, especially as a company founder or executive. When you feel stressed, explain your feelings. You don’t have to get into the weeds, but opening up a dialogue can go a long way in combatting the shame some may feel around needing to seek help.
The importance of therapy — even if you feel great
Therapy is not just for those who are going through issues right now, says Das.
“Even if you already have a great business and you’re doing well, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to see a therapist — just to keep your thoughts and feelings on track. I don’t think therapy is just for folks who are experiencing difficulties and problems. Therapy can be really good from a self-care component, and I just don’t think entrepreneurs take time for self-care.”
It doesn’t have to be often, says Das — the benefits of therapy can be felt by seeing a professional once a month.
Schedule meetings with yourself — and keep them
Das highlights how entrepreneurship is not a 9-to-5 gig. You’re thinking about your business from the moment you wake up to that hour you’re lying awake in the middle of the night. But working non-stop is not a solution, and should not be celebrated as dedication.
“You have to carve out time for yourself every single day,” she says. “We’re meeting and instituting all these deadlines for everyone else, but we’re never carving in deadlines for ourselves to have time.”
The solution, Das says, is to budget your breaks just like you would any other time commitment. Just like you add meetings to your Google calendar, add a 10-minute slot in the afternoon for meditation. Set a calendar reminder to eat lunch.
The same goes for employees, once your company has swelled to that point. In a scaling startup, the work environment can often seem overwhelming.
“Create opportunities for team members from a mindfulness standpoint, maybe starting the morning from a meditation session or a gratitude session, making people take a mandatory lunch break.” Das says it’s up to company leadership to foster healthy habits.
Hope for the best, but always plan for the worst
This may seem counterintuitive, but Das says that visualizing failure will help you maintain better mental health in the long run. Many successful entrepreneurs experience failure multiple times before they hit an idea or business model which finds them success.
“A lot of people have plan A, but they may not have B or C, and that causes stress. So, how are you going to work through those failed businesses until you find one that actually sticks?”
That also goes for financial stress. Money concerns are often cited as a cause of depression and anxiety, and can even lead to suicide in extreme cases.
“A lot of those who contemplate suicide, it’s when they get financially up against the wall, if the business isn’t performing like they thought it would,” says Das. “Sometimes suicide becomes an option for those in the startup community because they can’t cope with the failure of a business or the bills that are piling up or that they have children and aren’t able to provide for them.”
Entrepreneurs should take a hard look at how much financial pressure they can stand — and not go beyond that threshold. Are you okay with not taking a salary for a few months? Is your family relying on you to pay the mortgage or school bills? Will someone you love be adversely affected if that funding round doesn’t close? Know your line and don’t cross it, because Das says it just isn’t worth it.
“Part of starting your own business is knowing that failure is a possibility. Of course we don’t hope for that, but you have to be open to it.”
So, is the startup community embracing positive mental health?
In a word, Das says “yes.” She points to corporate campuses in Silicon Valley that emphasize green space, hold meditation classes, have on-site gyms and pay for therapy.
Part of this shift may stem from lessons learned a very hard way. There have been several documented cases of tech startup founders or executives attempting suicide. Das says that her reception at companies has been encouraging — her talks can pack a room at a non-mandatory event at 4 in the afternoon.
Startup accelerators and VC firms are paying closer attention also. Following multiple attempted or realized suicides by founders going through accelerators, top programs like 500 Startups and Techstars have begun talking about the issue.
But most entrepreneurs are not yet at the point where they have an office full of employees to work with on improved mental health. Many never go through an accelerator. It’s the ones working out of coffee shops or out of their homes that must be hyper-vigilant, according to Das.
“That situation is even more stressful. So all that means is it’s even more important to practice self-care.”