Deep breathe, not easy to say, but all through my entrepreneurial years, I had my battles with a variety of mental health problems. But I am still here.
I say that because, tragically, far too many entrepreneurs have died by suicide through the years, seemingly often highly successful people. Yet it is still comparatively rare for entrepreneurs to talk about their mental health struggles. And there, of course, lies the issue. When mental health problems are buried, they only get worse.
Mental health figures show that 1 in 6 people across the population now experiences a mental health problem. With entrepreneurs, studies have found that the propensity for mental health problems is higher still. A study by Dr. Michael Freeman at the University Of California found that 1 in 3 entrepreneurs suffer from depression. He also found higher incidents of both bi-polar and attention deficiency orders (ADD) than non-entrepreneurs
Olivia James, the Harley Street therapist and coach, compiled this report and found high levels of depression correlating to Freeman’s work. She found that 72% of entrepreneurs had mental health problems or differences.
Oliva James also found that “most entrepreneurs have experienced early childhood trauma in the form of emotional and or physical hardship. While this makes them extremely self-reliant, they have deep wounds. They also find it difficult to ask for help when mental health problems affect their performance and wellbeing.”.
When I am interviewing entrepreneurs, many tell of tough challenges in childhood, parental divorces, bereavement, or financial crises. And often, the child’s reaction has been to go proactive and take charge of their lives somehow. Yet while that may represent moving on, the trauma was not always dealt with, a breeding ground for mental health problems later on.
These monumental events are easy to spot in our lives, but there are the less spoken about, the neglect, abuse, and negative voices in or outside the home that form our self-esteem issues. It is no coincidence that many entrepreneurs who performed badly at school were told they would never amount to anything.
The combination can result in a gritty, determined, ambitious person who is set on proving the world wrong and, in the process, making themselves feel better and keep the depression at bay. The reality is that the damage is still there, and no amount of success will do that. In fact, entrepreneurs are often more comfortable when things are going poorly because that fight against the odds is their safe place. Contrarily, success feels empty because they re-meet the void.
While depression is all about past events, anxiety is about the future. Early life traumas that make for depression can make people more vulnerable. So can current-day trauma, and entrepreneurs do have private lives; they too may be going through a divorce, bereavement, health issues, moving house, or any high-stress situation.
The entrepreneur’s life is full of uncertainty, often conducive to mental health problems. The state of the world, be it economically, or in terms of change, global safety, all these things get to us all, but for an entrepreneur, they have to be problems faced and solved as far as is possible. The pressure from all sides is immense; the responsibility to the team, the financial demands to keep going in difficult times, and to be at peak innovative and creative power.
There is the abuse that so often comes now on social media; the threats and personal attacks, usually completely unmerited, and that have never met the entrepreneur nor even had any dealings with them. It is another heap of fuel to add to the anxiety.
They work long hours, often a trigger for physical and mental health problems, anxiety among them. Trite though it may be, sleep and relaxation take anxiety levels down, yet we are programmed to believe that as entrepreneurs, we have to be super-people, keeping going come what may.
Studies have also shown entrepreneurs to be prone to being workaholics. That obsessiveness often goes hand in hand with other addictions, the “dark side” of entrepreneurism. They can be more susceptible to booze, drugs, gambling, anything that offers the highs and lows, similar to the roller-coaster of entrepreneurship. But these are also props for escapism and, sometimes, to keep going and ignore the exhaustion.
As entrepreneurs, we set ourselves up for failure. It is the black pit continually lurking at our side, and for many, that would mean that those negative voices were right, ignoring the whispers that we are no good, not deserving in some way.
All these things can lead to mental health problems, including anxiety and burnout.
Burnout was not even recognized as an official disease till 2019, and as a result, it has become a trendy little phrase that is regularly misused. People talk of burnout for any number of causes, yet within the official diagnosis, it is strictly work orientated.
Exhaustion is one of the primary causes. We attempt the impossible and keep going against all odds. Society has long led us to believe this is something to be applauded. But eventually, anyone can succumb to pure exhaustion.
Lack of control is another major contributor to mental health problems and burnout in particular. When you strive with everything you have to make your business a success, and for various reasons, it keeps on being swept away from you, you will feel out of control. For the entrepreneur, who is naturally someone who likes control, that can be devastating.
Life for an entrepreneur is often neither just nor fair. In addition to the dangers outside your control, there are other pressures, unfair litigation for one. While vexatious litigation has become a part of our society, it also leads to mental health problems such as anxiety and burnout. Your values may not match those of the people you are doing business with, which can hugely affect the psyche.
And then there is loneliness and isolation. People are much more prone to burnout unless surrounded by a supportive community. Too often, entrepreneurs feel they are not, either because that is truly the case or because they think that others would not understand if they did talk about the pressures they are under. Entrepreneurs’ tendency to believe they have to do everything themselves doesn’t help either.
With burnout comes brain fog. And while initially, that brings more practical problems as functioning levels go down, eventually, it can come to the point where someone with burnout literally cannot function at all. Staring into space, getting nothing done, falling asleep at your desk are all common.
If lucky enough to find the right help, someone in a job might be supported through extensive time off and significant lifestyle changes. But the entrepreneur feels they have to keep going, come what may, and too often stick a plaster over the issue with a holiday or a short rest and then go back and do all the same things again till they reach that breaking point.
Just three of the mental health problems
I chose these three mental health issues to highlight here because I went through all three at different times when running a business and feel a vast empathy and understanding for all the other entrepreneurs who may be in the same situation. But there are of course many more.
These three mental health problems came at different times; depression when we were finally successful and I had time to breathe; anxiety when things started to go wrong again and I was subject to a social media bullying campaign; burnout when because I felt I “ought” to, I kept going way too late for my phyical or mental health.
Of course, there are overlaps between the three, making them all the more difficult to diagnose. The ignorance surrounding mental health challenges is extreme even in this day and age.
But what has to be tackled is the denial by entrepreneurs that they could be vulnerable and the lack of acknowledgment by society that, in reality, entrepreneurs are more at risk than most people. The problem needs much greater recognition and much greater support.
We need an entrepreneurial movement to make this happen.
I write about mental health problems a fair bit but you may find this article on building resilience helpful. But above all always, always reach out and talk to someone…