Anybody who’s grappled with depression knows this: depression lies (or hashtag #depressionlies if you prefer). It tells us the sweet, seductive story that our life is bleak, without hope and therefore, without meaning.
But perhaps nobody knows this more than people who head up a company and are responsible for the livelihoods (and in some cases, the very lives) of their staff and employees. They feel the burden of responsibility even more if they have investors, advisers and bankers.
We know it because of highly-publicized suicides like Aaron Swartz and Jody Sherman — people who had bright futures, but couldn’t see them through the cloudy haze of the lies depression tells.
What you hear from startup founders and entrepreneurs is that startup life is hard. You have to work incredible hours, face incredible odds, and incredibly, most startups will still fail. After one or two years, you may have very little to show for all of your effort, energy and hard work.
Your investors move on to the Next Big Idea, your employees and staff find other work, and you try and pick up the pieces of your failed idea.
Not just a failed idea, though. “You’re a failure,” depression whispers. “You’ll never be successful.”
Some people find that it’s hard to argue with the voice. Because that voice is yours.
All the while these feelings start to rear their ugly, you’re expected to “act normal.” In fact, you’re supposed to cover up these feelings altogether, pretending everything is fine. You are, after all, the head cheerleader for your own life. Like when someone is grieving, nobody knows how to react to the news that you’re suffering from depression.
“Is there anything I can do?”
“I dunno.” How’s that for a helpful response? Depression doesn’t want help — it wants you to crawl under the covers and never come out again.
Depression Doesn’t Target Startups or Entrepreneurs
But I’d be lying to you if I said this story was unique to founders and entrepreneurs. It’s not. Depression is commonplace in modern society — far more common than I think most people realize. Besides phobias, it’s the most common mental illness people come down with —
It doesn’t discriminate by race, gender, profession, social status or education. It doesn’t care if you’re married with 2 beautiful children. It doesn’t care if you have a job or are homeless. Moms get it. Dads get it. Hot, young single adults get it. Successful and failed entrepreneurs get it. That celebrity had it.
I’m not sure why any of this is news to the startup, technology and entrepreneurial community. Maybe young adults — which are over-represented in these kinds of jobs — feel like they’re immune to illness or sickness. Like most young adults who are in good health. Perhaps it demonstrates we still have a ways to go to combat the prejudice and discrimination that often accompanies mental illness.
Or perhaps not. Research (Haller et al., 2008) has shown that young adults have a much more open attitude toward mental illness and the wide range of causes and treatments available:
Biomedical views of mental illness were apparent in the study by Wright et al (2005). These results were in contrast to those from similar studies conducted with adults.
Thirty percent to 40% more young people believed psychotherapy could be helpful in the treatment of depression or psychosis than adult participants in a study using similar methodology. This may suggest a generational shift in beliefs about causes of mental illness and consequently of the best way to treat them.
So maybe the fact that mental illness still faces some discrimination is more a component of the startup and entrepreneurial environment in Silicon Valley. A Disneyfied, gleaming artificial world where Big Ideas and Pure Optimism are more important than understanding how a real business needs to make real money. Where virtually everybody truly believes that the statistic of 9 out of 10 startups fail doesn’t apply to them.
As Brad Feld wrote over at Inc.,
But depression carries a stigma. Most of the success stories we hear involve an entrepreneur who pushes himself beyond his physical and emotional limits. He’s unbalanced–but in a good way.
My own experience has made me realize that this imbalance is no way to live the start-up life, and, in fact, it’s detrimental to this kind of work.
Indeed. When you’re young and feel like you have endless energy, working 80 hours a week (and getting paid for 40) seems like a good idea. But it’s not. It eventually catches up to you, stresses you out, and throws your entire life out of balance.
Some of the articles written around this topic sound like thinly-veiled excuses for the discrimination and prejudice that many have experienced in startup cultures. That because these environments are stressful and demanding, it somehow excuses discrimination and stigma of mental illness.
Lots of people have stress. Dozens of careers have more stress than someone running a startup. I mean, starting a new business from scratch in America is as old an idea as America itself. But even people in colonial America didn’t work 80 hours a week to make their dream come true.
Discrimination stops with you. If you’re in a meeting with 10 fellow employees, it’s likely one of you has depression.
And if you’re that person, please remember: depression lies. The key is to wake up one day and remember that. Get yourself to your doctor or a mental health professional, get treatment, and get better. Once you do, you’ll see that the lies depression was telling you were as empty as its now-hollow husk.