*This article is the beginning of an article and video series about entrepreneurs’ mental health. We’re currently in the process of gathering data and statistics about this intriguing topic. Interested to help us out? Please take a few moments to answer this survey.
Project Idea: Shadw Helal
Team members: Shaden Khalil and Shadw Helal
Is Entrepreneurship the Real Deal?
Entrepreneurship has become our time’s hottest trend, with people seeing it as a sparkly path that comes with respect and no baggage. But the glamour of the term blurs what it means to be an entrepreneur with all of its drawbacks.
Entrepreneurs are known to be multitaskers. Most early starters are part-timers devoted to their startup while juggling a full-time corporate job. But on the mental and emotional level, they are 100% invested in their startup that needs undivided attention.
It’s Not All Rainbows and Butterflies; It’s Compromise!*
*Please excuse the Maroon 5 reference.
Starters need to be quick, with their timelines, deadlines, and decisions. They have to be punctual, intellectual and brain-storming machines. But again, they need to be doers, outgoing networking moguls and they need to always stand out.
To maintain an A performance on your startup, you need to be extremely passionate, dive headfirst, take risks, believe in the impossible, but always have a plan. It’s about playing it hard but smart. The comfort zone doesn’t get you anywhere. It's making the impossible-possible formula, and in the process, you will face mischiefs, failures, disappointments, and many times you will have to pivot!
Success Doesn’t Come Without A Price
And if you pass the two-years risk, and you are already setting sail with your startup to success and profit, you’ll have the baggage of scalability! To endure all that while keeping the energy level above average still, you’ll be pressuring yourself, starving yourself sleep, social life, and peace of mind.
The journey of being a founder and a manager in your own business will inevitably take a toll on your mental health, according to TechCrunch. And it all comes down to the false narrative of what it would be like to be an entrepreneur. Investors and founders all perpetuate a myth in the startup ecosystem that the only way to be successful is to grind yourself to the bone.
Founders often cross the fine line between recognizing their identity as separate from their startups; hence, startup failures count as personal failures and may lead to frustration and undermining self-worth. Also the financial risk they take upon themselves as they bootstrap and self-fund at the beginning means any failure will be a personal financial burden, which adds to their stressors.
The Struggle Continues
The second most stressful time for founders is right before they are able to secure a major fundraise; the most stressful time is right afterward. Because if you are one of those entrepreneurs who received an investment, it will be both victory and liability, you no longer only owe yourself a success, you owe your investors perfect numbers.
All those triggers might eventually lead to chronic stress, where it would manifest in physical signs as rapid heart rate, high blood pressure or insomnia, and mental illnesses, according to Forbes.
Mental illnesses have been stigmatized for quite some time, and resources are limited for most, but entrepreneurs tend to have very basic (or no) insurance. And unaware just how important mental health is for success, many entrepreneurs don't include therapy into their budget.
Is Mental Illness a Trait or A Result of Being an Entrepreneur?
Although there are no definite numbers or deep research on the mental health cost of entrepreneurship in the MENA region, the subject has been drawing attention lately in the American ecosystem and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors.
“Most people would not start a new business,” Michael Freeman, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, U.C. San Francisco School of Medicine says in an interview for Entrepreneur.com, “Everybody knows you have to be a little crazy to be an entrepreneur.”
The symptoms of various mental illnesses seem to help propel an entrepreneurial mindset, the lows of depression trigger needs to solve a problem, and a manic episode can just be the flicker for a right idea of the solution, ADHD prompts fast decision making, and collectively they ignite creativity and inspiration to seek implementation. This is what StartupGrind said.
“The qualities that make me a great entrepreneur – creativity, empathy, adaptiveness, humor, independence, risk-taking, multi-tasking, and crisis-management skills – come from the same roots of trauma as my experiences of shame, anxiety, perfectionism, ADHD, and discomfort with stability.’’, says Megan Bruneau, a therapist, and executive coach, in a Forbes women interview.
Studies have not concluded a definite genetic tie between mental illnesses and an entrepreneurial mindset, but they started an important conversation about the un-tackled dark side of the enlightened mind.
What’s On The Other Side of Genius?
In one of the biggest studies on mental disorders thus far, the results of which were published last year in the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, researchers surveyed 9,800 college students in the Netherlands and found that students diagnosed with ADHD were almost twice as likely as other students to start a business. That’s not to say they’ll actually succeed -- which is a matter for further study.
Passion: The Good and the Bad
According to a study by Harvard Business Review on the relationship between entrepreneurship, burnout, there are two types of passion that entrepreneurs can possess.
1. Type 1 with harmonious passion:
Experience high levels of concentration, attention, and absorption during their work.
Allow themselves breaks from work and have more flexibility.
Feel that their entrepreneurial career allowed them to live a variety of memorable experiences.
Overall, these harmoniously passionate entrepreneurs were able to balance their job with other activities in their lives without experiencing conflict, guilt, or negative effects. Consequently, they found that those entrepreneurs had a significantly smaller chance of suffering from feelings of burnout.
2. Type 2 with obsessive passion:
View their career as important because of certain pressures or outcomes.
Are concerned about social acceptance, status, money, and other outcomes associated with being an entrepreneur.
Have a hard time paying attention at work.
Often distracted by thinking about the roles and responsibilities they were neglecting because of their obsessive passion.
Say they can’t live without their work.
Felt emotionally dependent on their work.
But Are Entrepreneurs Particularly Vulnerable to Mental Health Challenges?
According to Freeman entrepreneurs are 50% more likely to report having a mental health condition, with some specific conditions being incredibly prevalent amongst founders.
As per Forbes, the results are shocking, founders are:
Some Facts Just Cannot Be Ignored
“We can either choose to see founders purely as a means to an end (generating returns) or we can see them as the whole people they are’’, Michael Freeman commented.
The results are downright terrifying, and it should not only serve as a red alert for entrepreneurs but investors as well. In the light of these results, investors who make a living off the sweat and blood of successful startups face a huge risk of financial catastrophe if their founders are struck by the mental illness epidemic.
There are tragic deadends entrepreneurs had to resolute due to mental illnesses, according to Shopify. Among the uber-successful who committed suicide In 2011, Ilya Zhitomirskiy, CEO of Diaspora. In 2013, so did Aaron Schwartz, from Reddit, Jody Sherman, founder of Ecomom, In 2015, Austen Heinz, CEO of Cambrian Genomics, and Faigy Mayer, CEO of Appleton took their own lives as well.
The morbid ends don't fortify a solid causal link, but they definitely prove that even the most successful and driven entrepreneurs are not immune to mental illnesses.
It’s undeniable now that there is a strong correlation between mental illnesses and entrepreneurship whether as cause or effect. And this demands further studies and interventions to allow entrepreneurs and investors to dwell on the positive side of entrepreneurship while keeping the sanity of the founders with the least damage.
Back to the MENA Region, there is a general taboo when publicly speaking about mental health. It’s not getting the attention that matches the weight of the problem. Entrepreneurs’ mental well-being can play a major role in their sustainability and growth, and in turn, can affect their financial status; affecting the investing partners and VCs directly.
The ecosystem has transformed and evolved tremendously over the past 10 years and taking into consideration the extremely different circumstances and economic challenges entrepreneurs face here, the mental wellness of founders should be brought under the spotlight very soon.