Life as an entrepreneur can be an absolute roller coaster.
One minute you’re up with the highs of a successful rollout, a cool new feature, finally getting some quality time with your family; the next minute you’re in the mires of the lows, when something goes wrong, when customers complain, or when you’re just so.tired.
It’s perfectly normal that we all experience these highs and lows, but what about when the lows stem from something other than the regular emotions we all go through? What about when that low feeling becomes something more chronic? Something more painful.
Fortunately, founder depression is something that is being talked about more and more. And it is something that is treatable.
What is founder depression?
Depression is a mental illness, as recognized in the DSM-5. It is not the same as “feeling down” or dealing with grief, both of which everyone experiences from time to time, but is more lasting in nature. For a diagnosis of depression,“depressed mood” or “loss of interest or pleasure,” must last for two weeks or longer. It is a lower, longer lasting low that the typical highs and lows of life.
The American Psychiatric Association says:
“Depression (major depressive disorder) is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act… Depression causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function at work and at home.”
In the general population, depression affects an estimated one in 15 adults in any given year, while one in six people will experience depression at some time in their life. Among the entrepreneur population, there are indications that these figures may be higher than the overall populace.
Michael A. Freeman, M.D. and his team researched mental health concerns among entrepreneurs. They found that 72% of the entrepreneurs they surveyed reported mental health concerns. Specifically, 49% reported having one or more lifetime mental health conditions. (Note: These may include other mental health conditions besides depression). Overall, entrepreneurs were 30% more likely to experience depression than members of the general population.
What does founder depression look like?
Most entrepreneurs are great at keeping things looking good from the outside. The company is growing, the opportunities are flowing, profitability is just around the corner….
What can’t be seen from the outside is exhaustion, numbness. Depression is a void or sense of emptiness. Founders may feel physically and emotionally drained. They start to question their decisions, struggle to make decisions, find they’re unable to sleep well, and that they just don’t have the same “spark.” Food doesn’t taste good. Life feels blah. This loss of interest, indifference, or generally depressed mood can start to impact their ability to perform on a daily basis, yet they often feel extra pressure to “put on a face” for the people around them.
I recently interviewed Rand Fishkin, who has spoken out about his own experiences with depression. We talked about how very destructive depression can be for founders, their companies, and all people around them. Sometimes people express concern, but in a depressive state, it can be difficult for the affected founder to really hear them. “Depressive logic” can tell you that the world is out to get you, and other people are just misinformed.Founder depression may feel more like numbness than sadness Click To Tweet
Mental health studies
Depression doesn’t discriminate over whom it affects, but there is some evidence for a link (although not a clear, consistent link), with the innate character traits of entrepreneurs. The Freeman study mentioned earlier is probably one of the best studies to-date that specifically tackles the mental health of entrepreneurs. As the study discusses:
“Several mission-critical entrepreneurial propensities and traits are also clinical features of bipolarity, depression, ADHD, and substance use conditions, suggesting the possibility that these conditions may be more prevalent among entrepreneurs.”
Specifically, those traits include: creativity and innovativeness, goal attainment and achievement motivation, and risk propensity. The same traits which make you an amazing entrepreneur can be linked with mental health challenges that test your ability to function well.
Rand spoke of the “norms” that dictate who you’re supposed to be, how you’re supposed to think, feel and act as an entrepreneur. Often these are shallow caricatures which set you up for false expectations. “Your expectation of who you’re supposed to be doesn’t match with who you are,” he says.
Some founders may experience depression when they’re pushing themselves to fit a mold of entrepreneurship, when really, many of the expected traits are the opposite of their own personality. For example, if you’re more of an introvert, long days requiring you to network and hold meetings with investors can naturally be draining. Maybe you’re a technical founder and love the nuts and bolts of the technology, but the thought of managing people sucks the life right out of you.
While more research is still required delving further into founder depression, what we do know is that anecdotal evidence also backs up the findings of the Freeman study. If you take a quick Google search, looking for founder or entrepreneurial depression, it’s a common topic among forums, business-centered websites, and academics.
Sadly, there are many cases of entrepreneurs finding themselves crippled by depression, sometimes even resulting in founder suicides. These have often seemingly come out of the blue for friends and loved ones, and highlight the need to address this issue in the open.
Founder depression is something I address extensively in my new book, The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Sh*t Together. I hope that by being more open about this, we can normalize mental health issues among founders, so that everyone knows it’s not shameful.
Know that founder depression is common
One of the major issues I talked about with Rand was the need to destigmatize depression and mental health issues among founders. You can have every outward appearance of success, while inwardly battling with your mental health.
Sometimes our own expectations are unrealistic, formed from some idea of founders having to be infallible, always steady, and laser-focused. This is why having role models step forward who are more transparent with their weaknesses and their strengths is important. Rand spoke of attending a CEO summit where, when the question was asked as to who had experienced severe anxiety or depression, all but two hands went up. This is an issue prevalent among founders!
Toby Thomas, CEO of EnSite Solutions, talks about how “impression management” is flawed with the analogy of a man riding a lion:
“People look at him and think, This guy’s really got it together! He’s brave!” says Thomas. “And the man riding the lion is thinking, How the hell did I get on a lion, and how do I keep from getting eaten?”
“Now is not the time to ‘hack’ your mental health.” It’s tempting among the entrepreneurial set – everything is about streamlining and better efficiency, but when it comes to your mental health, seeking professional help and allowing yourself the space to follow the process is the best thing to do.
It’s important to have a space to be transparent in a safe environment, whether that’s through counseling, coaching, or simply talking with others who have experienced similar issues. In fact, social support is one of the strongest protective factors that helps reduce the the negative impact of both psychological and physical health.
If you suspect that you may be experiencing depression, seek professional help. There’s no reason to suffer needlessly.
Your feelings shouldn’t be pushed aside, but seen as an addressable part of the mental health equation. As is often appealing to the entrepreneurial mindset, you could look at your feelings as data – they’re all telling you something!
Being a founder, particularly as you move into a CEO role can be very isolating, so making the space to just talk with someone who has an understanding ear can make a huge difference.
“We often feel like we’re trapped by circumstance, but often it’s more that we’re trapped by unwillingness to directly address an issue.” – Rand Fishkin.
Founder depression is a common reality among entrepreneurs of all stripes. Many founders try to struggle through, or altogether ignore their depression symptoms, but that can be a very destructive strategy for themselves, their companies, and anyone around them.
It’s important to develop self-awareness and know the clues that you may be experiencing depression. If people close to you are indicating that you don’t seem to be yourself, or you notice that you’re consistently low or unenthused, perhaps it’s time to pause and examine what’s going on with yourself.
Just know that you are not alone in experiencing this and don’t have to go through it on your own. In fact, reaching out for social support and seeking professional help are your most important first steps.
You’re reading an online article. We’ve done our best to provide scientifically informed, thoughtful information. However, this article is no substitute for a conversation with a healthcare professional. ZenFounder, LLC does not diagnose or treat depression or any other mental illness. If you’re concerned about the possibility of depression, please talk with your physician or seek a consultation with a mental health professional.