I know this post is going to be a downer but I think there is a lot more to be talked about regarding depression, mental health, and entrepreneurship.
I recently heard a terrifying stat about founder suicides recently. A friend told me that he’d heard of over a dozen suicides from entrepreneurs in the past few years. I didn’t press him for the specific data because I didn’t want to struggle through it, but I personally knew of three so I expected that it would add up to a dozen pretty easily.
Yesterday, I read a post titled The Downtown Project Suicides: Can the Pursuit of Happiness Kill You? It’s part of a series done by Re/code on the Downtown Las Vegas project. The series started out very positive with an article titled Downtown Las Vegas Is the Great American Techtopia but in the middle of the series Tony Hsieh Stepped Down From Lead Role at Las Vegas Downtown Project, 30% of the staff got laid off, and the articles turned negative with Factorli, an Early Casualty of the Las Vegas Downtown Project.
And yesterday, the suicide article – The Downtown Project Suicides: Can the Pursuit of Happiness Kill You? – appeared. It’s a rough one that talks about three suicides – Jody Sherman (4/13), Ovik Banerjee (1/14), and Matt Berman (4/14) – all people involved in the Vegas Tech phenomenon.
I’m saddened by the struggles around The Downtown Vegas Project. I’ve long thought, and continue to think, it’s a really interesting experiment.
But I’m really upset by the suicides. Re/code’s article is harsh and questions the Happiness philosophy of Tony Hsieh and whether it is partly responsible for the suicides. Kim Knoll who was apparently interviewed for the article has a solid response to this. But regardless of the root cause, which we can’t possibly know from the article, the fact stands that three entrepreneurs involved recently committed suicide.
First, if you are ever considering committing suicide, immediate reach out to someone and ask for help. Amy and I recommend the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline if you don’t know where to turn. The 800 number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
When I had my first clinical depression in my mid-20s, Amy and I set up a few rules around things. We specifically talked about suicide and I agreed that if I ever had a suicidal thought, I wouldn’t act on it. Instead, I would immediately stop what I was doing, tell Amy what I was thinking, and we’d discuss it. During this long depression, I only had one suicidal ideation, but it was while we were driving on a highway in Sedona (I was driving). I immediately pulled over to the side of the road, stopped the car, and told Amy what I was thinking. We switched seats – she drove the rest of the way, and then we had a long conversation that night. After the conversation, even though I was still very depressed, I felt immense relief and support. When we got back to our home in Boston after that vacation, I started therapy, which was incredibly helpful.
Our society still has an incredible stigma associated with depression. Anyone who has been depressed knows that it is extremely hard to describe how it feels to someone who hasn’t ever been depressed. My favorite description of depression continues to be from Hyperbole and a Half. I’ve recently started describing it as an emotional pain that is significantly worse than almost all physical pains you could imagine, especially because it seems to go on forever. And sometimes this pain is so severe that it feels like ending it all by committing suicide is the only answer.
While this isn’t unique to entrepreneurs, the intensity of being an entrepreneur, especially when your company is failing, or you are failing at your role, can be overwhelming. I see it all the time and try to be a very empathetic listener whenever I encounter it. I’ve learned a huge amount from my friend Jerry Colonna about how to be helpful and know that I’ll continue to be on a journey around mental health and entrepreneurship.
It’s ok to fail. It’s ok to lose. It’s ok to be depressed.
If you are contemplating suicide, get help. If you have an entrepreneurial friend contemplating suicide, do your best to get them help.
I got to spend a lot of time with my close friend Rand Fishkin the past few days. The first was at Denver Startup Week, where we did a panel discussion with Ben Huh and Bart Lorang where we discussed the pact between CEO and Board, the pact between Founder and Investor, and how to be transparent and direct.
The next day, Rand led a full day offsite for a number of CEOs in our portfolio.
In between, he wrote an epic blog post titled A Long, Ugly Year of Depression That’s Finally Fading. Go read it now – I’ll wait.
I love Rand – not in that surface “I love you man” kind of way. Ever since I met him and his wife Geraldine, I’ve adored them as a couple and each as individuals. I often develop deep personal relationships with the people I work with which can be challenging when businesses struggle and difficult decisions have to be made. I’ve had a few friendships fail as a result of the pressure, stress, and intensity of working through certain situations, but far more have strengthened as a result. It’s a risk I decided to take a long time ago and I’ll continue to do it, even when I have to cope with my own anxiety, emotional struggles, and even depression, as a result.
We invested in Moz in April 2012. Rand wrote so extensively about it in his post Moz’s $18 Million Venture Financing: Our Story, Metrics and Future that almost all of the major tech blogs declined to write about it “because all the news was covered in the post.” Whatever.
The first nine months were great – the business grew as planned as I started to get to know everyone and how things worked at Moz. The company was working on a major rebrand (from SEOMoz to Moz) as well as a huge software expansion which was started before I invested. But by mid-year 2013 things were not going as planned. Rand has written extensively about it, but when he and Geraldine visited us in Boulder for a few days around that time both Amy and I thought Rand was depressed.
By the winter time, Rand had decided to hand the CEO roles to his longtime partner and COO Sarah Bird. Shortly after, he acknowledged his depression in his post at the end of 2013 when he wrote Can’t Sleep; Caught in The Loop. Regardless of his struggle, he continued to work incredibly hard, but we started having a different conversation, this time as friends rather than investor / board member and CEO / founder. I was more concerned about Rand’s mental health than his activity at Moz, and our conversations were generally around this. At the same time, Sarah grabbed the CEO reins firmly and has done an outstanding job, which I knew would ultimately be helpful to Rand.
Rand looked better in the past few days than I’ve felt he looked in several years. I was thrilled to see his post come out between our rambling Denver Startup Week discussion and the full day of the CEO offsite.
Most of all, I’m delighted that my friend Rand’s depression is finally starting to fade. Rand – you are amazing – and loved by me and many. Carry that with you all the time.
I recently talked to Larissa Herda, the CEO of TW Telecom (in the process of being acquired by Level 3). Larissa reached out to me through an employee who knows me because of my own struggles with depression. Larissa is another example of a leader / CEO who has been open about depression, especially in the workplace, and we had a great conversation.
Larissa is hosting the Sixth U.S./Canada Forum on Mental Health and Productivity at her offices in Denver on 9/26. The topic this year is Making Suicide Prevention a Health and Safety Priority. The participants will largely be business leaders and CEOs.
While I won’t be able to attend because I’ll be in LA, I told Larissa that I’d invite the CEOs from the Foundry Group portfolio as well as my extended network. I know from conversations and our friend “social media” that many of you were impacted by Robin Williams’ recent suicide. And I’ve had excellent conversations about my own depression with a number of you, and a few of you were extraordinary helpful during this time for me.
If you are a CEO and this is something you are interested in participating in, send me an email and I’ll hook you up.
I woke up with gloom in my brain this morning. Robin Williams apparent suicide really impacted me, just like it has so many other people. At first I wasn’t going to write about it because I haven’t really processed it or my emotions around it, but as I woke up, and continued to obsess about it, I thought I’d try to chase some of my own demons out of my head by putting words on paper (well – electrons on screen.) I have no idea where I’ll go with this post and hope it ends up being helpful instead of self-indulgent, but we’ll find out together if you read along.
Robin Williams was one of my favorite actors. He was an iconic comedian from my childhood (I’m 48) alongside Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Steve Martin. For a teenage boy in Dallas, Texas, these four guys defined funny. Every time a movie or TV came on with them in it, I watched it. And laughed a lot. But then Robin Williams did something magical. He started acting (well – maybe he was always acting) and went on to make two of my favorite movies of all times – Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. And man oh man was Mork from Orc an amazing actor.
When Amy and I moved to Boulder in 1995, one of the fun quiet things I didn’t share was how cool it was to be living in Mork’s home town. When I met David Cohen and found out he lived next door to the Mork and Mindy House, I knew I’d found an easter egg that would tickle me forever.
Yesterday afternoon I saw a tweet that was simply “Robin Williams RIP.” I immediately knew he was dead. With a couple of clicks I knew it was probably suicide (although it hasn’t been confirmed yet.) And at about 4pm Mountain Time, a lot of air went out of my balloon.
Amy is up in Keystone and I’m in Boulder so I went out to dinner with my partner Jason and his fiancee Jenn. It was a perfect night in Boulder so we sat outside at Japango and ate sushi and drank sake. I knew I probably shouldn’t have had anything to drink, since it’s wrong for me whenever I’m feeling down or depressed, but I just rolled with it. Jason and Jenn were perfect company – they are so incredibly happy and aligned on the run up to the wedding – so it was great energy just to be with them.
I got home, checked my email, facetimed with Amy, and went to bed. I was planning to get up early and work on my current book (Startup Opportunities) but at 5am when I got up, the gloom was heavy in my brain. Some of it might have been the sake, some of it was the tossing and turning from the dark, angry, hostile, complicated dreams I had, and some was waking up alone, with my beloved 90 miles away.
I rolled over and woke up naturally at 6:47. The fact that I noticed it was 6:47 triggered a bunch of stuff (normally I’d stay in bed until 6:48 because of 7:00 – 13 minutes) but I decided I wasn’t going to play that game with myself this morning. I had a cup of coffee and checked my email. I looked at my calendar which is packed with meetings from 9:30 to 5:30 followed by dinner with Seth and Jason and one of our LPs who is a very close friend. My brain flashed on “I just have to get to 6pm – then I’ll be able to chill and be happy.” That was a bad sign.
I went and read some of the stuff on Robin Williams. I watched the clip which I embeded above. I read Jeff Carter’s post Robin Williams RIP-Suicide Is Not A Way Out (Moz had picked it up in my Moz Fresh Alerts.) Jeff leads with a great reminder to anyone contemplating suicide:
First off, if you are thinking of committing suicide, don’t. Here’s the number to call if you find yourself unstable. No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.
It’s an hour later. While this did end up being a self-indulgent post, I’m feeling a little lighter. The sky in Boulder is a perfect blue color and it looks magnificent outside. I looked at my schedule again and it doesn’t look as oppressive. I know I’m surrounded by people I love and who love me. While the world will miss a wonderful man, and as David Mandell said in his Facebook post “The awesome/asshole ratio of this world took a very big hit today” life goes on.
Let us all stand on our desks today. O’Captain My Captain, we will miss you.
As Amy and I get ready to return to Boulder today and physically re-enter the human race, I woke up this morning thinking about how I’m feeling emotionally. We’ve had an excellent three weeks up at our house in Homer, Alaska, far away from the people we know. Our only friends up here are our neighbors (whom we adore) so other than one visitor (Matt Shobe – who we also adore) it’s been a very solitary and physically introverted time.
I’ve been working a lot – typically on video conferences and phone calls for four to eight hours a day. Toss in email, some projects, and my daily writing and you’ve got a full schedule. But it’s been alone, with just Amy, in our house, far away from other people. The days have been long, with lots of light, late dinners, and even later nights since the sun doesn’t go down until after midnight. And that’s been good for my soul.
Several months ago I received the following question in email. It’s similar to a number of emails I’ve received and I thought of it this morning as I was pondering my mental health so I figured I’d riff on it a little.
“I have been struggling with depression for a while. I want to write about it, but I’m afraid that it will really negatively impact me professionally. Some investor might not write me a check, because he/she will think that I’m not a good bet, or maybe someone will think twice about hiring me down the line. Have you found people treat you differently after you’ve written about your depression? Have you had opportunities close up? Would you recommend writing about it for someone who is not as established as you are?”
Following is a rambling rant on each question.
Would you recommend writing about it for someone who is not as established as you are?”: I have no idea. In my case, I started writing about it without considering the implications. The transparency movement was one of the motivations that resulted in me starting to blog in 2004 as I played some follow the leader with my friends Fred Wilson and Jerry Colonna, who each discovered the joy of blogging shortly before I did. A decade later, I continued to believe deeply in the value of transparency as well as authenticity, which has been reinforced through my work with Rand Fishkin, Sarah Bird, Moz, and Moz’s TAGFEE code. I try to be myself, be direct, be open, and own my thoughts and ideas all the time. So it would have been opaque and inauthentic not to talk openly about depression and, given that transparency and authenticity are a key part of my value system, I never gave it a second thought beyond realizing that if I didn’t talk openly about depression, I was bullshitting myself and violating some of my core values. That said, I have no idea if it’s a good idea for someone else to write about their depression – it’s going to depend on their value system, circumstance, and mental/emotional state. However, I do know that talking about it, even privately, has helped me address my depression, so I encourage anyone who is struggling with depression to make sure they at least have a few people in their lives who they can talk to openly about what is going on with them.
Have you found people treat you differently after you’ve written about your depression? Have you had opportunities close up? I’ve had three experiences: a few mildly negative, a few irrelevant, and many overwhelmingly positive. I’ll start with the negative. Several people who I previously was close to withdrew from interacting with me. I have no idea why – I can only speculate that they were uncomfortable, afraid, or ashamed of something, or for me. I’ve proactively reached out to several of them now that I’m not depressed and re-established close relationships, so the dynamics here are a mystery to me. A few people, instead of being passive, were openly hostile to me. I ignored them as I realized their hostility was likely more about them than about me. Many, many people reached out, provided support, opened up about their own depression, thanked me for providing leadership on this issue, or words for them, or just an example of a successful person who struggled with depression. This was the overwhelming feedback and resulted in a number of new, interesting, and powerful relationships for me. Many of the conversations I had with this set of people helped me work through my depression and better understand myself, and many of them told me that I had a similar impact on them.
Reflecting on this rant, I think people do interact with me differently in a way that is very positive and powerful. There is a lot more connection and empathy in my relationships. I’ve always had a lot of this since it’s the way I’m wired, but now it extends to many of the relationships I have from a distance, online, or are business interactions with relatively little physical or social interaction. It’s easier to get real about what is going on when things are difficult or when I see someone else struggling. And, when I need a break from humans, I just take it without worrying about it or wondering what people are thinking. At some level, I’ve let go of another layer of external judgment and validation, which already was largely absent from my psychological construct since I’m so deeply intrinsically motivated. But by helping people understand me better, they can related to me better and I can relate to them better.
So – overall – being open about and writing about my struggles with depression has been a huge plus for me.
My various posts on depression and my struggles with it generate a wide range of emails, some with suggestions, some with questions, and some with empathy. The following question is an example of what I get regularly.
“I read your blog every day and have read your book on living with an entrepreneur. Thanks for sharing your experiences with depression. I was wondering if you had any advice or resources for spouses of those going through depression. How does this impact Amy and how does she approach you and things when you go through this? I am struggling with this now in my marriage. It’s hard for me and I think it’s hard for our kids as well. My wife’s depression tests me like no other thing has and really pushes me to my limits of patience and understanding. How does one stay positive and productive when their loved one is suffering in a dark place? How do you maintain good communication through this without the anger and resentment coming out?”
I sat down with Amy this morning and came up with a list of things – from her perspective – that have helped her, and us, get through the depressive episodes. The italics are her suggestions; the text that follows is my thoughts and reactions to it.
Don’t try to fix things. I think it’s important to start here. When I’m depressed I don’t want to be “fixed.” If I knew how to fix myself, I would. But often things just get worse when I use this frame of reference. And, when someone else tries to fix me, I rarely can hear them, or even understand them. This often just makes the person trying to fix me frustrated, which just makes things worse. So start by accepting that the depressed person isn’t looking for a fix – quick or otherwise – when they are in the depths of a depression.
Make sure you take care of your own needs and do things for yourself that make you happy. I think this applies to anyone who has a partner with a major illness – a stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s, or depression. You are already pouring an enormous amount of your energy into your partner and not much, if anything, is coming back. Don’t neglect yourself. Spend time with friends. Do things that you love to do alone. Carve out time to just be.
Don’t take it personally – it’s not about you. This is a tough one. You are in a relationship with the depressed person. It’s natural to think – consciously or sub-consciously – that you are part of the problem. While you might be, don’t obsess about this. When your partner lashes out at you, absorb it rather than escalate. When your partner is non-responsive to you, be patient. Operate in the context of giving your partner the benefit of the doubt. Don’t try to fix things (see the note above), especially when you know that your partner is struggling with something that isn’t ultimately about you.
Be emotionally even keeled. Get a t-shirt that says “Keep Calm and Carry On.” The depression your partner is having will wear you down. Breathe deeply. Don’t suppress your emotions, but try to stay mellow, even when you feel yourself heating up or getting run down. And, if you are struggling with this …
Get therapy. Encourage your spouse to get therapy. Both Amy and I have had multi-year stretches of therapy. I like to refer to it as “spending an hour a week on Planet Brad.” I get one full hour, with my therapist, that is all about me. How fun is that? Well – sometimes it’s a lot of fun and sometimes it completely sucks, but I’ve always found it helpful.
Exercise. Let your endorphins free to race around your brain. Plus, this is a good way to take care of your own needs and do things for yourself.
Talk to friends and share the burden. Don’t follow Marge Simpson’s advice: “It doesn’t matter how you feel inside, you know. It’s what shows up on the outside that counts. Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down past your knees, until you’re almost walking on them. And then you’ll fit in, and you’ll be invited to parties, and boys will like you. And happiness will follow.” It’s wrong. Let your feelings out with your close friends. Ask them to just listen and be with you, not try to fix you.
Try to be optimistic that this will pass. Even the first time Amy had to deal with a depressive episode of mine, which lasted two years, she was optimistic it would pass. She hung in there. The third time we had to deal with this (last year), she knew it would pass and that made it easier.
Watch comedies. Try for laughter. I’d be laying in bed, not really interested in doing anything and suddenly Amy would come bounding into the room and say “One chance only to watch Uncle Buck with me.” I have zero resistance to a John Candy movie and even though I know Amy would rather watch The English Patient, we both realize that laughter is helpful.
If you’ve read this far, go take a look at Depression Part 2 by Hyperboleandahalf to better understand how your depressed partner is feeling.