Starting your own business is a thrill ride. Creating something from scratch, working in a field you’re passionate about and considering the financial potential of your enterprise can leave you feeling exhilarated.
Unfortunately, those feelings of elation may not be consistent throughout your tenure as the leader and figurehead of your business. In fact, if you aren’t careful, you could find yourself at increased risk for depression, burnout, and other mental health conditions.
Small Business Anxiety
The World Health Organization estimates that worldwide, about 300 million people are afflicted with depression, representing around 5-6 percent of the world’s population. It’s one of the most common mental health afflictions and therefore one of the most impactful. But among entrepreneurs, the rate of depression is even higher.
According to one study from the University of California, up to 30 percent of entrepreneurs are dealing with depression. That’s a rate 5-6 times higher than the rate for the “average” population.
Depression is, of course, more than just feeling sad. It can be demotivating and make it harder to be productive throughout the day, but in severe cases, depression can lead to self-harm and suicide. You don’t have to look far to find anecdotal examples of founders who succumbed to the pressures of the job.
For example, there’s Jody Sherman, founder of Ecomom, who took his own life at age 47. Just 6 months earlier, the company raised more than $5 million in funding, with more than $12 million in total funding. Not long after Sherman’s death, 22-year-old cofounder of social networking site Diaspora Ilya Zhitomirskiy took his own life.
Zhitomirskiy was described as talented and idealistic, and his death came as a shock to many. There’s also Austen Heinz, who ended his life at 31 back in 2015, and Faigy Mayer, who jumped off a roof the same year.
And if you talk to other entrepreneurs, it won’t be long before you uncover even more stories that show how quickly depression can manifest. Bradley Smith, the CEO of Rescue One Financial, is currently enjoying success after a growth period of 1,400 percent between 2010 and 2013.
But back in 2008, Smith was wracked with personal debt from trying to get the business off the ground, having cashed in his 401(k) and maxed out a $60,000 line of credit. On top of the daily stresses of managing clients and dealing with challenges, Smith describes it as one of the hardest periods of his life.
Why Depression Is So Dangerous for Entrepreneurs
Depression is a harmful disease for anyone, but it’s especially dangerous for entrepreneurs and founders for a handful of unique reasons:
- Risk and accountability. Starting a business is a serious financial risk; the average business costs $30,000 to start, which might require you to cash in your savings (on top of leaving your current job). That lack of stability, combined with the accountability you’ll face as the leader of the organization, can make everything more stressful and overwhelming.
- Time constraints. Founders are also notoriously busy. When your schedule for the week is already packed, it’s hard to find time to visit your therapist, or partake in your stress-relieving hobbies. You might not even have time to manage your relationships the way you once did.
- The fake smile. Finally, being a founder can be shockingly isolating. You might be surrounded by other people, but in a leadership position, you have to pretend that everything is fine even when it isn’t. As a partner or vendor, you have to project confidence and happiness even on your worst days. It feels like there’s nobody to talk to, and nobody to share your feelings with, which can make everything worse.
How to Recognize Depression Early
If you want a chance at mitigating or completely beating depression, you need to learn to recognize it early. The American Psychiatric Association lists the following symptoms to note:
- Feel sad, persistently, over several days.
- Losing interest in activities that you once liked.
- A sudden change in your appetite (along with weight gain or weight loss).
- Consistent difficulty sleeping.
- Low energy and persistent fatigue.
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt.
- Recurring purposeless physical activity (like hand-wringing).
- Increased difficulty when making decisions or solving problems.
- Persistent thoughts of death or suicide.
These symptoms can range from mild to severe, so even if you only feel a slight version of these symptoms, it’s important to take action.
Don’t let depression get in the way of what could be an amazing business (and an amazing life). If you notice these signs emerging, you need to seek help, whether it’s talking to friends and family members about the true stress of your position, taking a vacation, or seeking a therapist. Make the time, and take your mental health seriously.
Some of my favorite ways to combat depression, anxiety, and stress include:
- Take deep breaths (this really does work!)
- Meditate (there are tons of meditation apps you can try for free)
- Exercise daily
- Try journaling
- Create art (or play a musical instrument)
- Go outside
- Take a walk
- Try progressive muscle relaxation if you have trouble sleeping