Entrepreneurship and Mental Illness

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By Jessica Fialkovich | @jfialkovich

Are entrepreneurs touched by fire? That is the question Drs. Freeman, Johnson, Staudenmaier, and Zisser set out to investigate in their 2015 study. The study’s findings spurred chatter among the entrepreneurial community, but not shock or surprise. For some, like Kristin Darga creator of Denver-based Impact Founder, it was a call to action.

Darga said the study, combined with her experience of an ex-boyfriend who almost took his life, inspired her to create a platform for entrepreneurs to engage in authentic conversations about what it is really like to start and run a business, including the challenges, the isolation, and the struggle with depression.

The Freeman et al study reveals some major differences between the prevalence of self-reported mental illnesses in entrepreneurs vs non-entrepreneurs, including:

  • 30% struggle with depression (vs 15%)
  • 29% struggle with ADHD (vs 5%)
  • 12% struggle with substance abuse (vs 4%)
  • 11% struggle with bipolar disorder (vs 1%)

Overall 49% of entrepreneurs in the study self-reported having one or more mental health conditions compared with just 32% of non-entrepreneurs.

So what does the study prove? That entrepreneurs are touched by a special fire? That this group was particularly over-stressed or maybe even the study is flawed? All could be possible, but the results are worth a discussion, and Darga is leading the conversation.

“Impact Founder is a global community of people that care about each other,” she says. The company generates stories from entrepreneurs about their battles not just with mental illness but the daily life of stress and anxiety that comes with running your own business. “If [entrepreneurs] can see a person they can relate to, and see that person actually survived those issues, we all feel like we have made an impact.”

 
The forthcoming Impact Founder book features stories of entrepreneurs and their struggles. 

The forthcoming Impact Founder book features stories of entrepreneurs and their struggles. 

 

A community of like-minded peers is even more important for women entrepreneurs. MayoClinic estimates twice as many women as men will be diagnosed with depression during their lives. Surprisingly, the research Darga has seen about depression and women entrepreneurs has indicated a lower rate. “There isn’t a lot of good research or data on any of this yet, and [social scientists] haven’t fully investigated the correlation between entrepreneurship and mental illnesses in women versus men.”

When asked why she thinks reports of mental illness in women is a bit lower than men in current research she says, “I think the key is that it is self-reported. I don’t think women identify with things like depression when they are battling in business.”

The key takeaways for all entrepreneurs from the 2015 study should be conversation and action. Whatever internal battle someone is struggling with--self doubt, bootstrapping, failure--someone else has been there and made it through. Darga encourages entrepreneurs--men and women--to talk and to listen. “Be open with someone you trust. You feel freedom from restraints by sharing your struggles.”

The last-and most distressing-part of the study indicates entrepreneurs are more than twice as likely to experience psychiatric hospitalization or attempt suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling, the most important thing you can do is to reach out for help. The Colorado Mental Health Network is a peer driven community offering education, support, and advocacy. Darga also suggests the Suicide Prevention Hotline which provides free and confidential support for both the person in need of help and his or her loved ones.

At times, we women internalize what is happening in our lives and forget about the support and the community we have. We need to remember every battle we are facing, in business and in life, is not unique to our situation; it is just part of the human condition. We also need to listen and reach out to our peers and community members who may be in need. Running a business can feel like a battle, but in the grand scheme of life, it is only one small part. If you feel like you need to share a story of support or like you need to receive that from someone else, take action.


If you or someone you know is suffering from mental illness and considering suicide, please reach out to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline now. Do not wait. (800-273-8255)