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Is There A Suicidal Tendency Among Startup Entrepreneurs?

Written by Ken Gaebler
Published: 7/1/2015

Startup entrepreneurs experience pressures that few can imagine. It can take a toll on the entrepreneur's mental health, yet we rarely discuss this dark side of what has become a global obsession.

When Austen Heinz, the founder and CEO of Cambrian Genomics, tragically took his own life this past May, it got a few people thinking: is there something about being a start-up entrepreneur that might induce or exacerbate severe depression?

Depression and Startup Entrepreneurs

Biz Carson of Business Insider decided that this was a topic worth exploring. She notes that Heinz was preceded by other talented entrepreneurs who committed suicide, including Aaron Swartz, Jody Sherman and Ilya Zhitomirskiy.

In her article, Carson discusses a recent University of California Berkeley (UCB) study that surveyed 242 entrepreneurs and found that 49% reported mental health issues, with depression snagging first place as the most prevalent condition among startup entrepreneurs. In fact, 30 percent of surveyed entrepreneurs said they suffered from depression.

Nationally, studies have found that 18 percent of the adult population in the United States suffer from mental health issues. So, it would appear that mental health issues are indeed more widespread within the startup executive community, wouldn't it?

Which Comes First: Depression or Incorporation?

Statisticians, however, warn that one should never equate correlation with causation, and that sage advice is highly relevant to this discussion.

Does being an entrepreneur cause depression?

Or could it be that depression-prone individuals are attracted to entrepreneurship?

Our take is that the answer is likely somewhere in the middle. I've always said that you have to be "on the right side of crazy" to be a great entrepreneur. If you think like everybody else, you end up like everybody else. When everybody says your idea is crazy and that you won't succeed, well, you have to be a little nutty to keep moving forward, don't you?

Please don't take offense. I'm using "crazy" and "nutty" in a way that might not be sensitive to the many real-world challenges that mental illness entails. But, semantics aside, I still believe that you do have to be a little manic to have that burst of energy that leads you to believe you are unstoppable, should quit your job, leverage up with debt and chase after an entrepreneurial dream.

Having also been through the highs and lows of startup life, I know that the lows are severely depressing. I lost more than $23 million in investor money in one startup. That was incredibly sobering, and, believe me, it was very, very depressing. It took me a long time to get out of that funk and start over.

Given that so many startups struggle and that they fail with high probability, it's not surprising that many entrepreneurs are depressed. It's a tough way to live.

Further Discussion on Entrepreneurial Mental Health Is Needed

Other studies will undoubtedly shed further light on the relationship between entrepreneurship and mental health. And there are many out there already that have explored the issue. A study featured in Small Business Economics, for example, found that individuals exhibiting behaviors associated with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) were more likely to want to become entrepreneurs compared to the others.

There's definitely something to this, and it's very interesting because you don't find psychiatric health attributes discussed in many articles on what it takes to become an entrepreneur. Maybe the big entrepreneurial self-assessment question should be: "Am I bit off, relative to what most would consider normal mental health?" If so, full speed ahead!

And what does it mean to consider the relationship between startup founders and mental illness when folks like the Kauffman Foundation are reporting that startup activity is zooming upward in the United States, with increased entrepreneurial activity in 32 of the 50 U.S. states last year?

Have we, on average, all gotten a little more mentally unhealthy in recent years, enough to get us to a tipping point where we are all jumping into the entrepreneurial abyss? Or is it possible that we're just fine now, but many of those who are taking the entrepreneurial plunge today will soon be joining the ranks of Prozac Nation when things get rough?

The jury's still out. But if doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results defines what insanity is, then I think it's safe to say that most of us qualify. It follows logically that the entrepreneurs who dare to dream and be different may be the sanest among us.

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