An entrepreneurial mind is a blessing, a key to great things. But creative brains are also vulnerable to mental illness. Business owners are the backbone of the U.S. economy and our communities, but the real deal is that many of us also experience mental health issues.
My gift that keeps on giving is anxiety. I recently raised a Series A, which took my mental, and ultimately physical, stress to another level. Even my 5-year-old commented, "Mommy, you seem super-duper tense lately." I had finally encountered the proverbial straw that broke the camel's (a.k.a. Mommy's) back--fundraising.
This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week. So I am reaching out to other founders to remind you to take care of yourselves--mind, body, spirit--and maybe add some cocktails and a nap.
A study by Michael Freeman, MD, showed that 72 percent of entrepreneurs self-reported mental health concerns. Those stats should make all of us sit up straight and take a closer look at the connections between business ownership and mental health, especially our own.
So, what is your gift? According to the Freeman study, entrepreneurs are significantly more likely to have been diagnosed with ADHD or live with depression or bipolar disorder. I say gift, because in my opinion, any of these can be a superpower if watched, controlled, or treated.
I met Elizabeth Truong, MD, when she took home the top prize at HelloAlice.com's Pitch With Purpose competition. The company she co-founded, Cloud 9, was created to provide mental health care to those who need it most, before they land in ERs, jails, or on the streets. Cloud 9's software helps mental health clinicians deliver care remotely, using data and communications technology. She is a psychiatrist who worked in private practice before becoming an entrepreneur. However, years earlier, during her residency, mental fogginess and general malaise led to her own diagnosis of depression, followed by treatment.
Now, as the chief clinical officer at Cloud 9, Truong has found herself needing to be particularly proactive in taking care of herself, as the stresses of leading a growing startup increase. Her tactics for keeping the dark hole from swallowing her include meditation coupled with a strong support network. Your self-care may look and feel different. As I said earlier, mine is exercise coupled with good wine and downtime with my family. (I also just started riding and training horses again, which is what got me through that overwhelming Series A raise.)
Here are some of the ways we can ensure our mental health is a superpower:
Demolish the Stigma
The perceived disgrace of mental illness leads many people to hide or ignore the struggles that are out of their control. Look, it was really hard for me to even write this column. I hid my anxiety, as if it was a bad habit, for years. When I finally started talking about it, that's when I began embracing it as a superpower.
Being more open allowed me to understand how to ensure productivity versus extremism in my mind. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, encourages all of us to talk openly about mental health, check our language, educate ourselves, and find empowerment instead of shame.
Remember the Whole Self and Whole Health
Anyone who has ever entered entrepreneurship knows that it can be all-consuming. For many of us, it is nearly impossible to turn off our work brains. Please exercise, eat healthfully, and, for goodness sake, get a hobby. Yes, we will work a 100-hour week, but mix in personal benefits in the meantime.
Lean on People
Entrepreneurship can feel lonely and isolating, because no one else can quite understand the roller coaster you're on. Plus, the stigma factor means many are reluctant to say, "This is hard." For me, I'm lucky to have a co-founder to whom I can turn. Whether you have a billion-dollar company or are just getting started, all of us need to connect with other people to share the ups and downs of this ride.
Take Vacation Time
Believe me, the thought of taking a break fills me with its own set of anxieties. However, productivity goes down when you burn out. Also, when you give your mind a true break from the business--I mean at least three days--you will come back refreshed, jazzed up, and with a clear head.
So, what is your superpower? I hope you are taking care of yourself. The next time I am running, riding, or drinking wine, I will think of you and your mental health. I hope you will think of yourself too.