The Highs and Lows of Entrepreneurship: Is There a Mental Health Trade-Off?
I never thought I would be an entrepreneur. I also never thought I would suffer from mental illness. These have always struck me as two “unknowns”, and scary ones at that. Now, at the age of 31 – and one breakdown, four depressive episodes, some dodgy mental health diagnoses, one successful and another abandoned startup later – I can say that neither entrepreneurship nor mental illness are unknown to me and one is far scarier than the other (I’ll leave you to guess which).
Life is about stories. Another scary thing; it scares me to tell mine these days, but here I am telling it nonetheless. It’s how we learn from those around us and, as entrepreneurs, throwing ourselves into this mad pursuit blindly, it’s really important to learn from others and, therefore, to help others learn from us.
We can skip the first two and a half years of my career as a management consultant in a corporate tech consultancy, other than to say that that’s where I had my first two “run-ins” with mental illness. A full on losing touch with reality, spending three weeks believing I was dying, breakdown, which saw me return to work 5 months later, only to find myself taking another 7 months off that same year. At that point, I decided to leave that company.
I tell you this because this is the context. Though my problems with my mental health were to follow me round, through every job, like some psychotic manager intent on ruining every job I ever got, this start on my mental health journey tells me that it’s not all because I became an entrepreneur or self-employed. We should not fear being entrepreneurs because it would be a total shame if we were to miss out on all its exhilarating brilliance simply because we believed it was a near-guaranteed nail in the mental health coffin. It doesn’t have to be.
That said, as entrepreneurs – current, past and future – we do have to make sure that we are taking particular care of our mental health. More so than others because of the level of sole responsibility and the pressure we put ourselves under. Our personalities are often that of high-achievers, endlessly driven. There’s also never a backup plan. Have you ever met an entrepreneur that had a backup plan?
Coincidentally, it was only really once I became an entrepreneur that I started to prioritise my mental health. Much to my therapist’s dismay, I didn’t really take her advice seriously enough after my first major depressive episode. I threw myself back into everything with much the same – if not more – fervour as before and then, with the help of an antidepressant induced mania, I made some very reckless decisions on a largely day-to-day basis.
It’s a shame when not going into work for a few days becomes not leaving the house, then not being able to leave the house, then not being able to go to work. I had to take time out from the startup I co-founded, Stemettes, an award-winning social enterprise inspiring girls and young women into Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths (STEM) careers. I came back to it once – after three months – and then I had to leave, after a seven month break. Thankfully, the business continues to thrive and help broaden girls’ horizons and self-belief. Stemettes has worked with over 40k girls now. I’m still so proud of it.
I turned to freelancing and founded a literary magazine for emerging female writers, Salomé, on the side, attempting to do my bit to balance the gender disparity in publishing. I thought I was doing fine, but on reflection my mental health was gently sliding downhill until it crashed pretty damn hard and ended up in a crumpled, useless heap on the floor. I left my freelance job and my magazine, ghosting them both because I just “couldn’t deal” (until my parents found out and sat with me and made me email everyone). Lesson learnt, never ghost – not in dating, nor in business; the guilt isn’t worth it. Get someone to send those difficult emails for you if you need to – there’s no shame in that.
When you wind up in the Priory mental health facility in leafy north London because the NHS have sent you packing because you’re seemingly losing your mind (I wasn’t quite, I was just very good at seeming like it) and you need a greater level of care than is immediately available, you have to take a moment to reflect. That is, once your brain is working again. That can take months.
Since then, I have reflected on my mental health almost every day. Once a week I fill out a template I have for assessing the week I’ve just had; what has been good or bad for my mental health, and what I’m going to do differently next week to make it better. No one made me, I just do it. It’s a skill I’ve learnt, with the help of my wonderful therapist, I’m committed to it and, importantly, I’m proud of myself for completing this task regularly. It is important that we acknowledge the seemingly easy tasks that are actually very difficult. When you’re depressed, that can be something as simple as taking the rubbish out or making a sandwich.
In filling out my beloved template, themes have emerged in the way that I’m learning to look after myself and my mental health, particularly around work and entrepreneurship. I will share a handful of them here but I want to impress upon you that these are unique to me and you will have your own. I encourage you to write yours down, as there’s nothing like seeing something in ink.
1. Always exercise. When things are bad, turn to exercise. And when you’re not exercising enough, it’s usually because things are bad or soon will be. When I’ve been depressed I have given it up completely.
2. Schedule nights in. Write them in your diary. Mine are red blocks, twice a week (minimum), labelled “KEEP FREE”.
3. You have people around you in business, but double check that they’re actually supporting you. For my second startup, I surrounded myself with amazing women but all the responsibility stopped with me because that’s how I set it up. I lulled myself into feeling safe and supported to a greater degree than I really was.
4. Know what is most important. Is it more important to write that newsletter so it goes out at 9am the next day, or is it more important to go for a pint with a friend and take the night off? Both can be productive, you need to understand which and when.
5. Be critical of yourself. Challenge your thoughts, particularly the ones that say “everything is ok”, or “if I just get this done, then everything will fall into place and I’ll feel better”. When I was unable to send an email newsletter so I had to get my friend to check I’d sent it at 5pm, I shouldn’t have been telling myself “everything is ok, this is just a coping strategy”.
6. Know when to call it a day. If you keep coming up against a brick wall and if your passion is fading, that’s a telling sign. It’s not a sign of weakness or failure. Acknowledging this and doing something about it is a demonstration of strength and bravery.
Nothing is more important than mental health because without good mental health, there is nothing. No job. No relationships with family and friends. No walks in the park. No ice creams on the beach in summer. No smiles shared between friends. No self-belief. No interest. No love, or even mild fondness, for life. Perhaps even no life at all.
We need entrepreneurs. We need them to be able to leave the house without wanting the ground to swallow them up. We need them to not be going to the supermarket in the dead of night once they’ve run out of food for 2 days because they’re too scared of other people (talking from experience, here). We need them to be able to go to industry events, or for a pint with their mates, instead of staying at home because they’re consumed with social anxiety. We need entrepreneurs, and we need their mental health preserved and strengthened, because that’s how this world changes for the better.
If you want to talk to me about mental health and entrepreneurship I would love to chat. I’m @JacsGud on twitter.
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