Building a startup is like climbing a mountain and being told you’ll only get the gear you need–harnesses, helmets, bottled oxygen–as you struggle toward the peak. Long hours away from family, responsibility to investors and users, and the fear of failure are extremely stressful and they sometimes coalesce into something more severe.
I’m not a startup founder, but as a TechCrunch writer I’ve gotten to know many, some quite well, and I’ve seen how entrepreneurship can put even the most optimistic people at risk for depression.
That’s why I was glad to read a blog post this weekend from Y Combinator president Sam Altman about founders and depression. Psychological issues of every kind are stigmatized, but it seems even worse for people working in tech.
As Altman writes,
“There is a huge amount of pressure as a founder to never show weakness and to be the cheerleader in all internal and external situations. The world can be falling down around you—and most of the time when you’re running a company, it is—and you have to be the strong, confident, and optimistic. Failing is terrifying, and so is looking stupid.”
I hope that Altman’s high profile in the startup industry and his post might help ease some of the stigma surrounding depression, encourage people to seek help, and start a conversation about an extremely important issue.
Of course, being an entrepreneur is not an inherently depressing thing and making the decision to launch a startup does not automatically put you at risk for burning out. But depression is a serious problem, especially when its sufferers must also bear the suffocating burden of silence.
No one should have to feel isolated. People in the tech industry who have written about or talked about depression include Brad Feld, the co-founder of Foundry Group and Techstars, who after the deaths of Aaron Swartz and Jody Sherman wrote in Inc magazine about his own experiences. He followed up his article with a post about how the spouses of depressed founders can help them cope.
A partial list of others who have described their experiences or those of people they know include Google Glass marketing manager Amanda Rosenberg; Rescue One Financial CEO Bradley Smith in an interview for an Inc article titled “The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship;” Ben Huh, founder of Cheezburger Networks, who wrote a blog post called “When Death Feels Like A Good Option”; Zak Homuth of Upverter; Seth Rosen, co-founder of CustomMade; and Sean Percival, currently a venture partner at 500 Startups.
I know how corrosive silence can be because I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder when I was a teenager and continue to deal with recurrent episodes.
I’m open about my experiences, but as I write this article, I worry that it will make people who are depressed feel even worse if they don’t speak out. It’s an extremely intimate issue and deciding to share it is a very personal decision. Thanks to my experiences, however, I know how important it is to build a network of people you can talk to about depression.
There was a time I refused to talk about my depression because I was so embarrassed by it. In college, after a year without symptoms, I even convinced myself that I was “cured.” When I began to feel the first signs of a recurrence, including suicidal ideation, severe insomnia and a low appetite, I was scared but I still didn’t want to seek help. I joked with my friends. I threw myself into my schoolwork. I went to parties.
But I couldn’t make my problems go away with willpower.
Long story short, I ended up in a psychiatric ward twice in one semester and was nearly forced to take a leave of absence from my school. My breakdown meant that I had to finally tell my friends and professors about my depression.
I was worried that they could reject me. I didn’t want to be seen as “the fucked up girl,” crazy, or unstable. The warmth and support I was greeted with instead humbled me, and I believe it saved my life.
To be sure, not everyone was kind. One friend told me “If you are depressed, don’t tell me, because I don’t care if you kill yourself.” It hurt, but in hindsight I’m glad I got the chance to cut her out of my life. There will always be people will try to trivialize your experiences or tell you to just cheer up, as if you enjoy being depressed.
Whenever I encounter individuals like that, I want to slap them with a copy of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poem “No worst, there is none,” in which he beautifully describes the nightmare and agony of depression:
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.
While I was struggling to recover and taking extensions on my papers, I apologized to one of my professors, a person I deeply respected, for my weakness. He told me “You are vulnerable, but you are not weak.”
That’s something I often repeat to myself. Asking for help makes you vulnerable, but it does not mean you are weak. It does not mean you are deficient. Asking for help when you are depressed is one of the bravest things you can do.
If you are reading this and suffering from depression or beginning to feel the symptoms, please take this post as a personal plea from someone who has been there before and never thought my life would be worth living: talk to someone. Talk to your family, your friends, anyone you trust. Find help. You will most likely find other people who have been through similar experiences or are close to people who have.
If someone approaches you about their depression, please treat them with compassion–it means that they trust you and probably hold you in extremely high regard.
If there is one thing that people working in tech truly need to disrupt, it’s the stigma surrounding depression and other psychological issues. Working at a startup may feel like climbing a mountain, but it’s not a trek that anyone needs to take alone.