October 7, 2021

Destigmatize Mental Health Issues in the Startup World and Our Everyday Lives

Written by Yuki-Katharina Olbrich

Being in an environment where the hustle culture is praised, startup founders often find themselves working 24/7, always giving 110%, always being on alert. Add the financial pressure, responsibility for employees, and high expectations from stakeholders – and stress, anxiety, and an increased risk of depression are almost bound to follow. In fact, according to a study by the University of California, 72% of entrepreneurs in the sample reported mental health concerns, with almost 50% having one or more lifetime mental health conditions. To put this in relation, in the comparative group of non-entrepreneurs, 32% reported having mental health conditions. While these data may have limitations due to a relatively small sample group, it is alarming how much more likely an entrepreneur is to suffer from illnesses such as depression, ADHD, substance use disorder, and bipolar disorder.

Mental health issues among entrepreneurs are a problem that is real and has to be taken seriously. Ideally, you create an environment and routines for yourself that help you stay healthy. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible for everyone, and things can get out of hand. But how do you spot if you or someone in your close surroundings is suffering from a mental illness, and what can you do for yourself or others? In a world where the word “depressive” is often overused, exaggerated, and thrown around lightly as a substitute for temporary feelings of sadness, it can be difficult to detect and admit a more severe condition.


Take Care of Your Mental Health

One of the most important things to do is be aware of how you’re feeling and listening to your body. When you know what your health status quo is, it is easier to notice any changes.

Everything in your body is interconnected. To stay healthy mentally, you need to take care of your physical well-being equally as much. This includes a nutritious diet, enough sleep, and exercising regularly. Make sure you choose a physical activity that you enjoy – this shouldn’t add another point to your to-do list but be a way to disconnect and recharge.

Stay connected. As busy as your work might be, you should always make time to connect with people. Schedule a weekly lunch with a friend, call your family on the weekend, and go out for dinner with your loved one. Prioritizing personal connections will help you stay grounded and remember that there is a world outside of your company.

Change it up. Break the routine once in a while by doing something different – have lunch outside, sit in another place, eat a different food. Even a small change of scene will help to get out of your daily grind.

Be honest with yourself and others. Don’t pretend like your job is easy and your product or service is just so amazing that everything falls into your lap. Of course, this might be the case for some lucky ones, but even then, a huge amount of work comes with it. Be honest about the work that goes into your startup, the stress this might be causing, and the doubts you might be having. Talking openly about how things really are will help you and others put things into perspective and manage expectations.

And last but not least, do something you enjoy every day. Love your morning coffee routine? Jamming on your guitar helps you unwind? Or maybe you got into jigsaw puzzles during the pandemic. Whatever it is that brings you joy, don’t skip it.


Look Out For Warning Signs

All of us feel down, exhausted, and stressed sometimes. That doesn’t mean that we automatically have a serious mental health issue. But if you’ve been feeling some of the typical symptoms almost every day for an extended period and can’t quite get out of this mental stage, it may be a sign that you are struggling with depression.

Depression has many faces and shows differently in everyone. Some of the common symptoms include talking very negatively, feeling worthless, losing interest or joy in things or people you once enjoyed and feeling sad or empty most of the day. You may also need more or less sleep than usual, eat more or less than usual, feel aches and pains, or have difficulty concentrating. Interestingly, men and women might feel different symptoms from each other. While men are more likely to feel anger, aggression, and risk-taking behavior, women tend to feel more stressed, anxious, and indecisive. Besides the signs of depression, many other feelings could indicate a mental health issue, such as increased energy level, talkativeness, impulse behavior, inflated self-esteem, and excessive irritability. Symptoms and feelings can sometimes be misunderstood or not easily detected.

No matter which combination of symptoms you might be experiencing or noticing in someone in your surroundings, you should take them seriously if they last for longer than two weeks. But even with these warning signs at hand, there is one type of depression that is especially hard to detect: atypical depression. In this blog post by German Entrepreneurship, you can find out more about what it is and which indicators to look out for.


How to Support Someone With Mental Health Issues

As family members, friends, or co-workers of someone struggling with mental health conditions, it can often be difficult to know how you can help. If you notice some of the symptoms mentioned above in a person close to you and you want to approach them about it, choose a time with as few distractions as possible. Tell them how much you and others care about them, and listen to them empathetically. Try to talk to them about the changes you have noticed in a caring way.

If there is an underlying mood disorder, it is crucial to acknowledge it as a medical condition and that people suffering from it are not behaving in one way or the other because they are lazy or weak. Trying to push “positive” thoughts onto someone with a mental illness will only make them feel worse. Avoid saying things like, “think positive,” “others have it way worse than you,” “be grateful for all you have,” or “it’s just a bad phase.” These things dismiss depression as a real illness, invalidate the emotions of the person suffering, make them feel guilty for their struggle, and may increase their social withdrawal.

While you need to respect that someone with depression may not want to talk about it, you want to avert that they isolate themselves, feel like they are a burden, and need to deal with it alone. Instead, signal to them that you want to provide a safe space for them to feel comfortable without the fear of judgment. The key to supporting someone with depression is to be consistent. For opening up to others about our feelings, we need trust. Let them know that you are there to listen, not judge, and without putting pressure on them. When you show that you don’t give up on them, no matter how often they might reject your help, they will start to see that they can rely on you. Restate how much you care about them. Tell them that their feelings are valid and that they are worthy. Being a rock for a person suffering from mental health issues will not magically cure their illness, but it will help them work through tough times, knowing they have a support system.


Everyone Can Help Destigmatize Mental Health Issues

Even though there have been a lot of improvements in the social acceptance of mental health issues, there are still many stigmas that prevent many people from talking about it openly. Especially in the entrepreneurial world, everything looks cool and laid back from the outside. The life of a founder is pictured as independent and autonomous – they are living their dream and have everything they want. The narrative focuses mainly on the million-dollar heavy funding rounds and the “overnight successes.” In an environment that is always looking for the next unicorn, taking a break is not part of the agenda. But underneath this surface, thousands of entrepreneurs are working day and night to keep their company afloat, struggling to juggle all the tasks by themselves, and feeling overwhelmed by the pressure that lies on their shoulders. Even when they are successful, there is always the expectation to do better.

We need to start painting a more realistic picture of founders. The startup ecosystem is a vast network of like-minded people, with many having gone through the same kind of challenges. The more people start sharing their experiences, good and bad, being authentic, and showing vulnerability, the more will be encouraged to follow. If everyone in the ecosystem, from founders and investors to mentors and accelerators, do their share in creating an environment where the people and their health truly come first, it will become easier for individuals with mental health concerns to open up and seek help.

Cover image by: Photo by Total Shape on Unsplash