Category: Mental Health
I’m super lucky. I get to work with many incredibly brave and insightful people. One of them is Chris Heivly who is now working at Techstars with me and a few others on a new set of products around the concept of startup communities.
May is mental health month. Jenny Lawton, Techstars COO, led off Techstars commitment to engaging with the post Let’s End the Stigma Around Mental Health. Her call to action, before she goes on to talk about her experience with mental health issues, follows:
“May is Mental Health Awareness month and Techstars is driving to end the stigma that surrounds mental health. Let’s open up the conversation around it and what it means to our community and industry.”
Today, Chris went public with his story in the post That Time I Could Not Break My Depression. If you’ve never met Chris, he’s a gregarious, energetic, fully engaged entrepreneur who has had multiple successes. But, he has struggled with depression, as he says in the lead off of his story.
As I read his story, I was incredibly proud of him for being able to talk about it and provide leadership for others. Then I read Lance Powers (founder at Sigmend – Techstars Class 68) post The Vital Role of Community in Mental Health Support where he talks about his bipolar disorder.
“If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would be writing a post discussing my Bipolar disorder for my friends, coworkers, and entire community to see, I wouldn’t have believed you. Thanks to the hard work of my local community in Boulder and Denver, I am not only comfortable writing this post, I am proud.”
Lance has two statements that encapsulate what I believe.
- “The problem is less about the disorder and more about the way we handle it.”
- “The one thing I know to be absolutely true is that a supportive community is vital to recovery.”
On Saturday, Amy and I participated in the annual BCH Foundation Gala which this year was in support of the BCH Foundation Mental Health Endowment. As part of it, we announced a lead gift for the new BCH Della Cava Family Medical Pavilion which will be used primarily for behavioral and mental health issues.
While more is coming on the work Amy and I are doing with BCH, for now, I’m going to end with the simple statement. I am incredibly appreciative and proud for all the insights, support, and bravery of all my colleagues and friends, around the issues of depression and mental health in general. Thank you.
Over 300 million people around the world suffer from depression. I’m one of them and have written extensively about my experience with it. The following 90-second video gives you a little more context on this.
April 7th is the World Health Organizations “World Health Day” and the theme of this year’s World Health Day is Depression: Let’s Talk. UCLA is engaging in a number of activities in commemoration of World Health Day. One of these activities is a social media campaign to publicly recognize a number of individuals who their campus has identified as a #DepressionHero. The UCLA Grand Challenge Facebook and Twitter accounts have been generating lots of content around this and I’m doing a public interview next week (I’ll post the details when I have the final information.)
I’m particularly tuned into this right now as I recently avoided a major depressive episode. If you are a regular reader of my blog, you may have picked up the tone of my increasing distress from posts in the first two weeks of February, including This Page Intentionally Left Blank, Generosity Burnout, and The Power Of A Digital Sabbath.
By Valentine’s Day, which corresponds to a low point in my depression of 2013, I realized I was heading for a bad place and I took a bunch of aggressive corrective actions, including shutting down all travel. Several of my close friends showed up quickly for me, including my partners who know me extremely well. Amy was clear thinking and awesome. We took a vacation for the first two weeks of March and by the mid-March, I knew I was fine and had dodged the depressive episode.
I’m fortunate that I’ve done the work, have professional help, incredibly supportive friends, and the universe’s best spouse to help me when the black dog shows up at my doorstep. Many are less fortunate, like the entrepreneur I didn’t know who unexpectedly to everyone around him committed suicide last week. I’m close with a colleague of his and the shock to the collective system is immense.
When I was in LA in February, I was at a group dinner with Dave Morin, a longtime friend of mine. A segment of the dinner was a discussion around depression among entrepreneurs which had some very difficult and challenging moments (on multiple dimensions). After the dinner, Dave and I had a brief conversation where he told me more about his involvement in the UCLA Grand Challenge on Depression. I told him that I’d be honored to help out in any way I could. I hope this is simply the first step of a long relationship with UCLA on this front.
I’m doing a little better than I was on Friday morning when I wrote the post Generosity Burnout. Just writing the post put me in an appropriate frame of mind to reflect on things on Saturday. I took a digital sabbath, something I’ve been doing on 90% of the Saturdays since I first tried it in March, 2013 in the middle of a deep depressive episode.
I’m not religious but I know many successful people who take a full day off once a week. I’m most familiar with the Jewish traditions, so I decided to emulate sabbath in spirit. No phone. No computer. No email. After almost four years, it’s a weekly touchpoint that has become a central part of my life.
On Friday, when I wrote Generosity Burnout, I was exhausted from three weeks of travel. On Tuesday in San Francisco, in the midst of an endless downpour, I acknowledged to myself that I had started to feel “down”, which is a euphemism for “feeling depressed” for many of us. I hadn’t tipped to a dark place, but I realized that I had given myself a total lack of self-care since the beginning of the year. While I had a normal amount of work stress, with something new fucked up every day, I was feeling the emotional impact more and carrying around extra anxiety that was bordering on obsessive thoughts.
Yesterday, I had a typical digital sabbath. I slept 12 hours, meditated, and then went running. Amy and I had lunch and talked. I then retreated to the couch and a read a book with her and the dogs. We took an afternoon nap, showered, and then went into Boulder for dinner with friends. We went to bed when we got home.
I took action on the self-care front. I haven’t been drinking any booze since my birthday (@bfeld v51). I decided to stop drinking coffee, cancel all of my Q2 travel, spent two nights a week at home with Amy for dinner in Q2, and start saying no to everything new until I feel like saying yes again. I’ve got plenty to work on – there’s no need to add more to it. And I know I get a lot of satisfaction and energy from working on what is on my plate.
I feel a little better today. I’m still tired and anxious. Meditation this morning was calming, as is writing this. After I hit post, I’m heading out for a run with the dogs.
There’s a longer article on HBR by Adam about the general concept of generosity burnout. It’s a good read and it’s helpful to me as I start working on my next book, Give First.
Several people have picked up from the tone of some recent blog posts that I’m wandering up to the edge of this. I’m at my limit emotionally and made a conscious decision a few days ago to change modes through at least the end of Q2. I cancelled all my work travel in Q2, uncommitted to a number of things that weren’t already in process, and generally decided to focus my energy on what I’m currently working on, rather than add to anything new, especially in the “this could be fun but I don’t know why I’m doing it” category.
I already say no 50+ times a day. I’ve also tuned out a ton of noise around things I can’t directly impact. That’s not the issue. Instead, it’s remembering to ask myself “do I want to do this while I’m in my current mode” at least twice before I say yes to anything.
During Boulder Startup Week 2016, Dave Mayer of Technical Integrity moderated a panel on Mental Health and Wellbeing that I was on with Sarah Jane Coffey and Tom Higley. It ended up going 90 minutes and I remember it being powerful for me and the audience. Dave recently put it up on Youtube and wrote a blog post about it. His leadoff in his post sets things up nicely.
“During my relatively short six-year journey through the startup landscape- I’ve been through ugly founder breakups, I’ve lost plenty of money, lost way too much time, and I ended up in the hospital from exhaustion from too many 100 hour weeks. That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the reality of building new companies. I know of suicides, families being torn apart and of course several cases of debilitating depression.”
If this is a topic that is interesting, relevant, or important to you, I hope you enjoy our rambling session on it at Naropa during BSW 2016. Thanks Dave for organizing and hosting. And thanks to Sarah Jane and Tom for being vulnerable and brave enough to talk publicly about this stuff.
December is a tough time of year for a lot of people. While the holidays are awesome for some, they are really hard for others.
I know a lot of people around me who are anxious, upset, stressed, or some other version of “not in a good place.” Some of it is the holidays, some is the end of the year, some is the outcome of the US election, and some is other things.
This morning I woke up to two good articles on mental health. I’m quoted widely, along with some of my personal story, in the Fortune Magazine article by Laura Entis titled Entrepreneurs Take on Depression. As a bookend, I was told in the article Mental health and relationships ‘key to happiness’ that a new London School of Economics study has determined that “good mental health and having a partner make people happier than doubling their income.”
Yesterday my partners and I had our quarterly offsite. A big part of it is what we now call a “partner check in” where we answer the question “How am I?” This answer can cover any dimension – personal, interpersonal, professional. It can be 1:1 with someone else, it can be with 1:2, or 1:3. It can cover one’s relationship with a spouse, kids, or family. It can be something in our head, heart, body, or soul. It can be very specific – an interaction dynamic with a CEO or founder – or something general, abstract, or even mysterious.
I wore a shirt with my favorite Helen Frankenthaler quote to remind me of our rules around our partner check in (and my approach to life in general.)
I’m in a good place so I was able to listen more than talk yesterday, which is probably a relief to my partners.
Even though some aspects of 2016 have been awesome, we all have agreed that we are ready to put 2016 in the books and move on to 2017. As we each talked about “How am I?” we recalled a number of traumatic, stressful, and anxiety producing events in the past year. We are all getting older so more health issues are appearing in our extended network of friends, so learning how to deal with them is becoming more important. Modulating the macro, especially post election, has become a more central theme for each of us.
There were a lot of specific things discussed that aren’t appropriate for me to write about, but the discussion reinforced with me how powerful the EQ of each of my partners is and my thankfulness that we have a level of emotional intimacy that we comfortably refer to as both business love and personal love.
For me, it cycles back to relationships. My relationship with my wife Amy grounds and centers me. My relationship with my partners allows me to be myself and spend time in an organization that provides me with continuous love, even against a backdrop of the endless stress, conflict, challenges, and struggle of entrepreneurship. While my extended family, which goes beyond just my parents and my brother (and now includes the spouses and kids of my partners), has its moments (like all families), it’s a source of profound joy for me much of the time.
December used to be very difficult for me. For many years, I fought the transition to the new year, was generally exhausted at the end of the year, and just wanted to hide. I described myself as a “cranky jewish kid who felt left out by Christmas.” At the end of 2012 I slipped into a deep depression that lasted six months. I learned a lot from that experience, and view it as my fundamental transition into middle age.
While I still don’t engage in Christmas, I now treasure the last few weeks of the year, as I reflect on the past year and get ready for the year to come. But, if you are feeling some December blues, or even depression, don’t fight it. Instead, do something for yourself. Be reflective. Let the emotions exist. And be encouraged that, like me, you can get to a better place, but it can take time.
At the end of the day yesterday I gave a talk at the opening of Galvanize Boulder. After, during the Q&A, someone brought up depression and I went on a long ramble about my own struggles over the years, how I’ve grown and developed, how it has impacted me, and what I do today to work on my mental fitness. During another ramble on introvert / extrovert, I told the crowd I was exhausted from the past few weeks and rather than stick around and mingle, I was going to head home to spend a quiet evening with Amy immediately after my session because I needed to recharge.
I got home by 6:30 to a nice bowl of rice and beans that Amy had made. We ate and caught up on the day. While we were talking, she said “Francie Anhut died.” I sat for a moment. I knew Francie had cancer. I didn’t have any words. Francie was one of the first people I met when I moved to Boulder and our paths had crossed many times. We weren’t super close, but we were supportive of many things Francie did and I was always happy whenever we saw each other.
Amy then mentioned two other Boulder people we both knew who had died in the past month of cancer. More silence. We talked about a close friend of Amy’s who is in remission from a major cancer and is doing amazingly well. We talked about how fragile life is and how happy we are to be alive and with each other.
We then filled out our ballots and voted. We mail in our votes in Boulder so we sat for about thirty minutes, went through each issue and person, and voted deliberately. By 8:00, we were both totally exhausted.
“Do you want to read, watch TV, or catch up on email?” I asked.
“I want to go to sleep.”
“Ok – let’s just do a quick scan of email and call it a night.”
As we were sitting in our library in front of our computers, we each half heartedly scanned through our email. This email was marked 7:22pm so it arrived around the time we were working on our ballots and was titled “Another recent suicide & sabbatical.”
“Was thinking about your sabbatical
Today as I am just now coming out of a fog post Denver Startup Week and GAN Rally. I’m realizing the impact and exhaustion I feel this time of the year, after those events. The sabbatical is something I see in this moment as a great idea to integrate in the future post Denver startup week.
Hate to keep sending you this news, but I know you’re someone taking action on mental health and entrepreneurship.
I just heard of a husband and wife team who took their lives next week. He was an integral part of the entrepreneurial community here in Colorado.
From Greg Barry: local in Boulder. I am in total shock. A friend and business partner, Kevin Johansen, along with his wife, Karen, took his life last week. I still can’t believe it’s true, even though his son and sister have posted about it online. I’ve known Kevin for 20 years, and we spoke every 3-6 months, if not every day, when we were working together.”
It was longer so I finished reading it. I started silently crying. I turned to Amy and said “I don’t think you know him, but Kevin Johansen and his wife Karen committed suicide recently. He was an entrepreneur in town.”
Amy’s whole being slumped in her chair. I could see her deflate. I realized that I had no capacity to process this given how tired I was, the conversation we had throughout the evening, the act of voting in what is easily the most angry, hostile, and disturbing election cycle I’ve experienced, and the notion that I was still absorbing that Francie and two other people I knew had died.
I don’t really remember getting in bed. I mechanically brushed my teeth but I think that was it. When I woke up this morning, the first thing I thought of was Kevin Johansen.
His family is doing a Johansen Memoriam Fund via GoFundMe to support funeral expenses. I just went and made a gift as a contribution from the Boulder startup community. If you’ve benefit from the local startup community, which Kevin and Karen gave so much of themselves to, please make any size contribution.
Most importantly, spend at least a minute today taking a deep breath and realizing life is fragile and precious.
Last week an email hit the Foundry Group EXEC list from Betabrand’s CMO Aaron. I asked him if I could share it because it was full of some enlightening stuff around depression that was prompted by the suicide of a friend of Aaron’s. He said yes. Aaron – thanks for helping eliminate the stigma around depression.
Following is the email Aaron sent to the Foundry Group EXEC list.
Hey everyone – I know that mental health issues have been discussed in this forum so I wanted to share something that surprised the hell out of me. TL;DR, a close friend of mine took his own life recently. None of his friends would have ever expected it or thought he was even remotely depressed.
Being totally taken by surprise, I shared a bit with our company via the email below just making sure no one felt alone or didn’t know where to turn to get help. As you can see, I sent this email 2 nights ago. So far, I’ve had 14 employees email me back sharing their stories of their own depression and that of their friends/family members that have also committed suicide. We have 76 employees, so that’s almost 20% of our workforce that has responded so far! I have no idea how many others have their own stories and just aren’t ready to share, but I can only assume that n>1.
Our little world can be lonely and isolating. This is just another reminder that you are not alone. If you’re like me and lucky enough to have never dealt with depression, understand that you can be the person that lends support to someone else. Make sure your staff knows what support you/the company offer and where to turn if they want/need help. You may be amazed at the response you get. Thanks for reading & have a great weekend!
PS – We may not know each other, but if you ever want to talk, you alway have someone to call 415-xxx-xxxx
Following is the email Aaron referenced that he had sent out to the whole company.
Hey all – Sorry for the heavy email, but this is an important topic to me. Some of you know that I lost a close friend recently due to suicide. We had no idea he was depressed and dealing with his own demons and dark thoughts. Had we known, of course we all would have dropped everything to help in any way we could have. In dealing with his loss and confusion that goes with it, I’ve had numerous people reach out to me talking about their own challenges and stories about what they’ve been through (directly and with family members). As someone that had never dealt with depression, I had no idea how prevalent it was and how many people deal with this struggle daily. It made me also realize that I didn’t even know where to turn people to in order to talk to a professional about this.
I asked P… what, if any, support Betabrand offers and it turns out, we have a really great benefit to help exactly with these needs. I’m sure many of you already knew this, but many of you may not. The LifeCare Work-Life EAP program for Betabrand employees provides free, confidential help with a variety of personal, work-life and concierge needs, including emotional, relationship, chemical dependency, financial and legal needs. Trained EAP staff are available 24/7: 866-574-7256. This information can be found through our ADP portal. Login into ADP Totalsource, hover over Myself and click on Benefits Resource Center, then Life Management, and the EAP information/portal is listed under Programs. Again, if you want to reach out to them, it’s 100% confidential.
I hope none of you are dealing with depression. However, if you are, please know that you’re not alone, you’re surrounded by people that really care about you and that you can call me at any time: 415-xxx-xxxx. Also, if you are like me, there is a good chance that you do know someone that is suffering and you just aren’t aware. Check in with people that are important to you. Ask how they’re doing. Then, ask how they’re really doing. Let them ask how you’re doing. Then, tell them the truth. Have the hard conversations. Life is too short.
Lastly, I’d like to thank Chris & James for being so supportive over the last couple weeks with me needing to be out of the office. I’m lucky to work at an amazing company that understands that sometimes, life happens and that can be more important than selling pants.
After a 30 day hard reset (also known as sabbatical) I felt like this was an important re-entry topic as I fling myself back into the fray.
Several years ago I got tired of the phrase “Work Life Balance” (and its various permutations – Work/Life Balance and Work-Life Balance.) When Amy and I wrote Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur we wrestled a lot with this notion, and the phrase. At the time we didn’t have a better way to phrase it, so “Work Life Balance” persisted throughout the book as we tried to describe and discuss the endless challenges of a partnership as a couple in the context of an entrepreneurial life.
During a talk a year or so ago, I used the word “harmony” instead of “balance.” Within moments I realized that I’d solved a phrasing that had been vexing me for years. We don’t strive for work life balance, as the two never are in balance. Instead, we strive for work life harmony. I’m not very musical, but I know when something sounds in harmony, or harmonious, and suddenly I had a new phrase – “work life harmony” – which now is the way I think of the delicate dance of an entrepreneurial couple (and many other couples), along with many individuals.
Recently, I was having the same problem with the phrase “mental health.” I was being interviewed about depression and talking about how I thought about therapy. I’m a huge fan of therapy, having spent five years in my 20’s with a Harvard-trained, old school psychiatrist and more recently with a Harvard-trained psychologist since my depressive episode in 2013. While they have been very different experiences, they have each been profound for me.
I characterize my therapy sessions a “spending an hour a week on Planet Brad.” I pay the person to listen to me talk about whatever I want to discuss. He (both my therapists have been male) guides me through a deeper exploration of whatever I bring up in various ways. He connects things together over time, bringing up deeper insights. He is patient, doesn’t judge me, is a completely safe place to discuss and explore anything, and customizes what he talks about to what is going on with me in the moment. I ended this section of the interview by saying that my therapist played an analogous role in my life as my long time running coach, but for my mental fitness rather than my physical fitness.
And there it was. I loved the phrase “mental fitness.” Every time I say the phrase “mental health”, I feel like I’m fighting a stigma, explaining something that is probably uncomfortable to many on the receiving end, generating biases, and struggling to explain that working on your mental health is a good thing, not a bad thing.
In contrast, mental fitness is positive, uplifting, and has no stigma associated with it. While I’m sure the phrase “mental health”, like “work life balance”, will regularly sneak into my writing and talking, I’m going to try hard to use “mental fitness” as my default, just like “work life harmony” has become my default. If you look carefully, you’ll even notice that the category on this blog, previously called “Mental Health”, is now called “Mental Fitness.”
On Tuesday, Jerry Colonna and I had a fireside chat hosted by the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network titled Making Mental Health a Priority. We did it at DU in partnership with Project X-ITE and had a powerful afternoon.
Last night I had dinner with a CEO I like a lot where we talked about some of the things he was struggling with. I used a concept with him that I’d been mulling about and tried out publicly at the event with Jerry.
I call it the responsibility glitch.
It’s a glitch I’ve had, and have struggled with, since I was a teenager. It’s also a glitch I see in many founders and CEOs.
I started my first company when I was 19 years old. By that point I felt immense responsibility for what I did. I was at MIT working hard on school. I had spent the previous two years – part time during the school year and full time in the summer – writing software for a company called PetCom. One of the products I wrote for them (PCEconomics) was very popular in the oil and gas industry and sold a lot of copies. I got a 5% royalty on every copy sold so I was getting monthly royalty checks ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 (I think the largest one I got was just over $12,000.) I had a long distance relationship with my high school girlfriend who became my first wife. I was the treasurer of my fraternity. While I had an adequate amount of fun in college, I was very serious. And responsible.
As I drifted into my 20s, as my first business grew, I felt responsible for many things around it. I got married and felt responsible for the relationship, my wife, and her actions. I was in a Ph.D. program and felt responsible for the work I was doing there.
At some point, the glitch appeared. It was likely stimulated by a variety of things, including too much overall feeling of responsibility and no perspective on how to manage or modulate it. I had clinical OCD (although I didn’t know it at the time) and had a need to try to control everything in my environment, although my attempts to do this were often hugely irrational and often entertaining to others. For example, I came up with the notion that if every cigarette butt that I passed on the sidewalks in Massachusetts wasn’t parallel to the street then my mother would die. While I clearly had plenty of spare cycles in my brain to ponder stuff like this, the image of me wandering down the sidewalk straightening cigarettes with my sneakers still causes me to cringe even 30 years later.
Then my circuits overloaded. I got kicked out of the Ph.D. program. My wife had an affair and we ended up getting divorced. My business was fine, but the stress from it, and everything else around me was overwhelming. I suddenly started feeling responsible for things I had no business feeling responsible for. I worried about my ex-Ph.D. colleagues, how they were doing, and wondered what I could do to help them avoid my fate. I was empathetic to my ex-wife when she called to ask for help when she was having problems with her boyfriend. I felt responsible for every client we had and whatever flaws were in our software and every moment.
I felt too responsible.
This eventually overwhelmed me and was part of what trigged my first depressive episode which lasted two years. Fortunately I was in therapy so I had a good solid two years to explore the feeling of being deeply depressed and all the elements around it. While there was no joy in that, it was profoundly important to my character and who I am today.
One of the things I learned about myself during this journey was that by being too responsible, I caused a number of unintended negative side effects. Some of these were easy to identify. For example, I learned that I undermined the people working for me since I allowed them to be less responsible, since I’d overcompensate for them. I realized that I was spending a lot of energy trying to control exogenous forces that I had no influence on. As I understood and resolved my OCD, I figured out that I was exhausting part of myself by continually processing a bunch of irrelevant linkages between things that either didn’t need to be controlled, or that I had no ability to impact.
Over the last 25 years, I’ve seen many other founders and CEOs be in the trap of feeling too much responsibility. Their instantiation of this occurs in different ways. There are often elements that are powerful for short moments of time, especially in a crisis. But when the behavior persists, crazy shit starts to happen. Often, feeling too much responsibility is a destructive force to the people around the founder / CEO, the company, the founder / CEO’s family, or the founder / CEO herself.
When I’m sitting with a CEO who feels anxious or self-identifies as depressed, even when she can’t really articulate why or what it means, I often look for the feeling of being overly responsible. It’s common and comes out quickly. When I dig in, I often find the person feels responsible for everyone and everything around her except for herself. She comes last in the list and rarely even gets to herself.
This is the responsibility glitch. If you identify with this, I encourage you to be aware of two things. First, be responsible, but try to stay on the right side of the “too much” line. This is different for everyone, but there definitely is a line where your feeling of responsibility starts to become destructive.
More importantly, be responsible for yourself first. As Jerry likes to say, go on a continuous journey of radical self-inquiry. Understand yourself. Learn about yourself. Take care of yourself. Be responsible for yourself. Only then can you be constructively responsible for others and things around you.
And now it is time to go for a run.