As a society, we are finally recognizing that mental health is just as important as physical health, if not more so. Celebrities, actors, and renowned business leaders are speaking up about their own mental health journeys and the importance of proactively prioritizing mental health for themselves and their loved ones.
Entrepreneurs in particular are more than 50% more likely to experience a mental health obstacle than the general population, which can not only affect their personal life, but can create a make-or-break situation for their business.
We are especially inspired by Brad Feld, co-founder of Foundry Group and Techstars, who is one of the first leaders in the startup space to write and speak openly about his own relationship with mental health.
We hosted an AMA with Brad, through which we dive into Brad’s own journey and hear what advice Brad would give to entrepreneurs to actively strengthen their mental health. Let’s get started.
In 2013, when I had an extended depressive episode (six months), I had been blogging very openly about my life for almost a decade. While my blog was centered on entrepreneurship, I wrote from a first-person, personal perspective and included many topics around the individual experiences of entrepreneurship. I realized that if I didn’t continue to write openly about my experience with depression, I’d be being deceitful about my own experience and effectively be full of shit by not including the full emotional range that I was dealing with.
In addition, several well-known entrepreneurs had recently committed suicide and I felt that mental health issues were being avoided and ignored around the dynamics of entrepreneurship.
Finally, while I had touched on depression on my blog in the past, I hadn’t written about depression in real time as I was experiencing it, and I thought a more public record of what I was experiencing might be helpful to me in the future. I didn’t think hard about the implications of writing about my depression as I’d already been talking openly about my struggles with OCD, anxiety, and depression for a while.
The positive feedback that I got - almost immediately - from other entrepreneurs about speaking out about mental health issues was very reinforcing of my desire and willingness to explore these ideas in writing. Ultimately, I realized that the stigma associated with mental health was a pernicious problem in entrepreneurship (and in society in general) and decided to try to play my part in reducing the stigma over time.
While I don’t know whether or not this is true, I think mental health issues are an integral part of the entrepreneurial experience. Being an entrepreneur and creating a company where nothing previously existed is an intense, challenging, and difficult journey. Even if ultimately successful, the path of entrepreneurship has endless hardships, setbacks, and failures. Any human, when confronted with this type of a challenge, will struggle, whether they acknowledge it or not. And, this struggle often surfaces existing or latent mental health issues and trauma.
In addition, all the mechanisms of self-medication generally relieve symptoms of the struggle but don’t get to the root cause. These behaviors can, and often do, catch up with the entrepreneur. While this is not limited to entrepreneurs, the intensity of the struggle, especially against the backdrop of a high-performing and high-achievement culture, can exacerbate mental health issues.
Absolutely, but I like a nuance around this better than the blunt statement. Founders, leaders, and teams that lack prioritization around understanding themselves, as individuals, and teams, have a lower probability of success, especially when scaling rapidly.
The best teams are the ones that are on a continual journey - as Jerry Colonna at his team at Reboot say - of radical self-inquiry and practical skill development. Both of these - “radical self-inquiry” and “practical skill development” are key and tightly intertwined. Too often, teams only focus on practical skill development.
The notion of seeming “weak” is part of the stigma that is associated with therapy. When I was in my 20s and struggling with a two year depressive episode, I was ashamed that I was going to therapy. I was ashamed that I took medication. I was ashamed that I was depressed. Step #1 is acknowledging how you feel, and then trying therapy anyway. For me, it was transformative then, and when I had a depressive episode in my late 40s, I started therapy again. This time I knew it would be helpful and rather than feel ashamed, I was enthusiastic about getting to spend an hour (well - 50 minutes) a week working on “me” with another person (my therapist.) I described it as my weekly trip to Planet Brad where I got to explore whatever I wanted about myself.
Continuing the trip to Planet Brad metaphor, therapy starts out as a safe and confidential space, with a guide (the therapist), to exploring oneself. Like many explorations, you get out of it what you put into it. For me, it’s always taken a while to get from “the crisis moment that causes me to start therapy” to a deeper level of insight about myself. I’m now in year six of my relationship with the therapist I started working with in my late 40s and my exploration has taken me on multiple unexpected paths that have been incredibly helpful as I try to make the transition to “middle age” (or whatever we call “our 50s” nowadays). As I’m confronted with numerous changes (my physiology, hormones, motivation, needs, desires, interests, and ways of thinking about what is important), having a guide help me with the exploration has been extremely helpful.
I categorize this into “habits” and “rhythms”. My habits include things like sleeping enough (now about eight hours a night), no longer drinking alcohol, minimizing caffeine, avoiding drugs, and carving out time for myself. My rhythms include things like meditating daily, running, reading, taking a digital sabbath (no email or work on Saturday), and taking a week off the grid with my wife Amy each quarter.
I’m hopeful that we are shifting to a proactive growth-oriented mentality, but given the persistent stigma associated with mental health issues, I think this will be a slow, but hopefully steady progression. The emergence of the “coach” in business and entrepreneurship has been a helpful addition to this, as a coach - while playing a different role than a therapist - is a part of a support system for leaders that can be incredibly helpful on many dimensions, including those that overlap with what a therapist can provide.
While I have no real idea, I hope that in 20 years we’ll view mental health as just another aspect of human health. In the same way that polio and cancer no longer have a stigma associated with them, as a species we should aspire to get to the same place with our thoughts around mental health.
Work on yourself regularly as part of starting and growing your company.
Brad Feld has been an early stage investor and entrepreneur since 1987. Prior to co-founding Foundry Group, he co-founded Mobius Venture Capital, founded Intensity Ventures and co-founded Techstars.
Brad is a writer and speaker on venture capital investing and entrepreneurship. He’s written a number of books as part of the Startup Revolution series and writes the blogs Feld Thoughts and Venture Deals. Brad earned his BS and MS in Management Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.