“No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness,” said Aristotle. Is it just a coincidence that the most brilliant minds are sometimes the ones that struggle the most? The very behaviors that are symptoms of mental illness also seem to be the ones that help propel entrepreneurs along their fast-paced journeys. Could that explain how so many affected by mental illness end up in the entrepreneurship world?
Creativity is like a double-edged sword. From Poe to Tesla, it’s no wonder that some of the greatest minds throughout history have been considered a bit “off.”
The entrepreneur is often represented as a go-getter with limitless ambition and an inventive mind. Over time, these innovators and risk-takers have shown a kind of fearlessness that many never experience. And throughout history, some of the most genius creators and thinkers have, less famously, struggled with mental illness.
This year, researchers at the University of California studied the link between entrepreneurship and mental illness. The researchers found that 49% of entrepreneurs surveyed were dealing with at least one mental illness (such as ADD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, addiction, depression, or anxiety) and about one third of entrepreneurs struggle with 2 or more mental illnesses. Overall, entrepreneurs were 30% more likely to experience depression than members of the general population.
One entrepreneur in her blog opened up and said, “Like thousands of other teenagers, I found solace in self harm and substance abuse. I’ve sat alone in darkness (both real and imagined), and contemplated suicide more times than I can count. I had my first brush with a mental hospital in high school. As a young adult, I found another way to self-medicate: work. It didn’t take long to land in the hospital again.
“My Welcome to Adulthood wakeup call was not just a realization that you had to work hard, take care of yourself, and that life wasn’t fair. It was that I had a lifelong diagnosis that would forever need to be micro-managed. That the words “mental illness” or “bipolar disorder” alone could conjure up seven kinds of crazy when spoken, and telling anyone at a job about it was a nail in the coffin of steady employment. That I was a living breathing risk not just to myself, but to others. But entrepreneurship gave me a gift.
“It opened my eyes to a world where I didn’t have to worry about losing a job because I needed to get my head back on straight in an in-patient program. It gave me the tools and resources to financially take care of myself using my own passions and skills. But it also took me into a world where remaining aware of how I was mentally checking in was vital.”
Most entrepreneurs are great at keeping things looking good from the outside. The company is growing, the opportunities are flowing, profitability is just around the corner….
What can’t be seen from the outside is exhaustion, numbness. Depression is a void or sense of emptiness. Entrepreneurs may feel physically and emotionally drained. They start to question their decisions, struggle to make decisions, find they’re unable to sleep well, and that they just don’t have the same “spark.” Food doesn’t taste good. Life feels meh. This loss of interest, indifference, or generally depressed mood can start to impact their ability to perform on a daily basis, yet they often feel extra pressure to “put on a face” for the people around them.
Mental illness and entrepreneurship can be a toxic mix if left unchecked. Unfortunately, while mental illness is slowly being recognized and accepted in the entrepreneurial world, many entrepreneurs are afraid of speaking up.
Some people who might not understand an entrepreneur’s mental illness are investors, employees, or fellow entrepreneurs. After all, when so much value is placed upon an entrepreneur’s reputation it causes so much extra stress and pressure to not appear “weak”.
If investors find out about an entrepreneur’s mental illness, they might get pushed out of the company or be demoted. Employees finding out about an entrepreneur’s mental illness might cause them to lose faith in their ability to lead the company. Entrepreneurs are put in a unique situation where there’s nothing but stress, where everyone is looking up to you, and you have to be a leader. There’s no other way around it.
If discovered early, mental illness in entrepreneurs can be treated. How?
The most common treatment for mental illness is psychotherapy. There are many different kinds of psychotherapy, but the most prevalent and successful type of therapy for treating a broad range of mental illness is cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy’s goal is to change certain patterns of thought or behavior in people that cause their mental illness. CBT can be used to treat depression, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia, psychosis, bipolar disorder, and other forms of mental illness.
Besides therapy, medication is the most effective and common method for treating mental illness. Different medications are used to treat different forms of mental illness, though certain medications can be used to treat multiple types of mental illness. For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are often used to treat depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Exercise and proper diets won’t treat certain types of mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. But, it’s an amazing tool for reducing stress and combating the symptoms and effects of anxiety disorders and depression. Countless studies have shown that exercise and healthy eating helps treat depression, anxiety, and stress.
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