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It was 2001 and Ben Huh was deeply depressed. His first start-up had failed and took away hundreds of thousands of investor funds. His solitude was all encompassing; his will to live fidgeted.
"I spent a week in my room with no light and no light from the world, wondering how best to end this mistake," he wrote years later. "Death was a good option – and it got better every day."
Huh don't know exactly why he ended up leaving this room, but he did. He eventually became the CEO of the hugely successful Cheezburger network, but it wasn't until 2011 that he addressed his depression caused by the suicide of Diaspora founder Ilya Zhitomirskiy.
"My post is about anyone who is quietly suffering (from depression)," Huh told Mashable. Zhitomirskiy, like Huh, probably felt a deep sense of isolation and loneliness – and he didn't have to. "From a long line of entrepreneurs who have suffered quietly from our own self-doubt, I wish I could speak to you and tell you to get the shit out of your own self-doubt," he wrote on his blog post.
Too often, entrepreneurs don't care enough about their mental health, and the startup culture is notoriously reluctant in this area. The combination can be fatal and has to change.
Related: Is Covid-19 A Mental Health Tipping Point?
Why entrepreneurs are vulnerable
An entrepreneur's mindset can be the perfect habitat for depression and anxiety.
For one, the nature of our work is deeply stressful. The popular idea of an entrepreneur is someone who is constantly sleep deprived and hunched over a keyboard in an empty office surrounded by coffee cups and fast food packaging. Mental health often falls by the wayside – and that requires we have the resources, like insurance, to seek help, which many of us don't.
Then there is loneliness. Building a startup can be a lonely job, especially when you feel like every moment not spent on the goal is wasted, leaving little time to maintain healthy relationships with family and friends. So much isolation lends itself to what Megan Bruneau, host of the podcast The Failure Factor, calls "impression management" – the idea that we have to look like we have it all together.
"Many entrepreneurs believe that we must be perceived as infallible in order to be seen as competent by stakeholders – a stark contrast to the stigmatized stereotypes of a person with impaired mental health," she writes. This perpetuates shame and separation – which leads to depression – and discourages seeking help.
After all, it's about our identity. When you are so devoted to something it can become impossible to tell where you end and business begins and we begin to break away from our own needs.
"The looming existential void (and the sense of self-worth associated with our company's success) is a manifestation of the perfectionism that causes both fear and an emotional roller coaster ride, depending on our ever-changing business outlook," writes Bruneau. And if your personal worth is tied to something as unpredictable as a startup, what if it fails?
The stigma of talking about mental health
Despite alarming statistics on the prevalence of mental health struggles in the startup world, it's still a stigma to talk about. To make matters worse, many disorders, such as anxiety and depression, are not always obvious to others. Hence, it's hard to know when someone is having problems.
But poor mental health can happen to anyone, any manager, staff, or intern. As leaders, it is up to us to create a culture in which discussions about mental wellbeing are treated with openness rather than shame. We also need to go the way by making sure we respect the work-life balance of employees. For example, don't expect an immediate response to an email sent at 2 a.m. and actively encourage employees to disconnect during vacations and weekends.
For founders, the tremendous stress and pressure of achieving goals is all but inevitable, Jess Ratcliffe, personal development coach for several startups and brands, told Forbes. Historically, there has been an overemphasis on short-term success over longevity, but luckily that is starting to change.
"Over the past few years I've noticed that founders have become increasingly aware of the importance of their psychological wellbeing. I see more founders working with coaches and even helping their team access coaching," she says. "It's incredibly exciting and will have a positive impact on the founder, the team, and the mission they are on. "
Know when to get help
In her book Employee to Entrepreneur, Suzanne Mulvehill writes: "Preparing mind, body and soul for entrepreneurship is like preparing mind, body and soul for the Olympic Games."
Getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising regularly are all good practices for taking care of your wellbeing. It's also a good idea to check with you about how you are feeling. Jon Dishotsky, CEO and co-founder of Starcity, writes for Fast Company: "It isn't always a dramatic fall to hit the ground." Sometimes it slowly sinks down. "
Perhaps you have experienced a general feeling of malaise or just don't feel like you. Maybe you are more tired than usual, but you don't know why. There may be more acute physical symptoms such as a tightness in the chest or weight in the pit of the stomach. Your body can signal you when something is wrong even before your awareness is recognized.
Ratcliffe agrees. Founders should watch out for warning signs such as: B. If you feel slowed down by self-doubt or have gone off course from your own mental narratives. “One of the most powerful things is to be proactive about your mental wellbeing instead of waiting for the time you feel you need help,” she says.
Related: 4 Ways To Protect Your Mental Health During Covid Second Wave
The good news is that help is everywhere. Reach out to a trusted friend or colleague, or find an online support network like 7 Cups of Tea, a peer-to-peer online counseling platform.
It is also up to business owners to be honest about their trips, warts and all. If you struggled with your business for years before you finally achieved a breakthrough, don't give the false impression that your success was quick or easy. I often talk about how my company, JotForm, is booted and how I've slowly grown it over the years to the more than 8 million users we have today. It has not been an easy journey without VC funding and dismissing the mainstream advice of "startup hustle", and I don't want anyone to think that it didn't come without a lot of hard work, ups and downs and so on lots of trial and error.
Building a business is difficult – mentally, physically and emotionally. There are steps we can take each day to survive in such an extreme environment, but we also need to take care of each other. By acknowledging our own difficulties and supporting one another, we can make the startup world a less hostile place for everyone.
If you or someone you know is in a crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by sending TALK at 741741
Related: Cultivate resilience and mental health in yourself