This first appeared in the Boulder Community Health Foundation Summer 2019 Magazine in an article titled Taking On The Mental Health Stigma.
I started the second week of 2013 in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show. Within two hours of arriving, I was in my hotel room, the shade closed, the door locked, and in bed with a pillow over my head. I couldn’t deal with anything at all. Having been here before, I knew I was in a deep depression.
From all external perspectives, my life was going great. I was healthy, my business (Foundry Group) was successful, I had an excellent marriage to Amy Batchelor, was surrounded by numerous friends, and I got to live in Boulder, Colorado. But I was physiologically exhausted from 2012. I’d run an ultra-marathon in the spring that I never recovered from, had a near-death bike accident, and squeezed a marathon in October when I had no business running one. I was on the road 75% of the time, working constantly, dealing with the explosive growth of several of our investments while struggling through the challenges at others while writing two books. Ending up with a kidney stone in November that required surgery and a month of rest should have been the warning I needed to slow it all down and take care of myself.
I’m fortunate that my wife, business partners, family, and friends are helpful to me when I’m depressed. I’m in a privileged position of having the financial resources to do whatever I need to do. I have a job that provides me a lot of flexibility. And I’m no longer afraid of being depressed or ashamed of being public about my struggles with depression and anxiety.
I had my first major depressive episode in my mid-20s. While I probably had been depressed prior to that, I never really processed it as depression. I was one of those kids who was successful at almost everything I tried, loved by my parents, and comfortable growing up. One day I found myself in the middle of a divorce, being kicked out of a Ph.D. program, and bored of my work at my first company, even though it was successful. I was lucky to have a Ph.D. advisor who was able to recommend a psychiatrist to me. I was quickly diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and again lucky to have a psychiatrist who was able to combine CBT and medication to help me overcome OCD while providing a safe space for me to explore my underlying anxiety disorder and the root causes of it.
At the time, I was incredibly ashamed of everything around my depression. I was ashamed that I was depressed. I hated that I took medicine. I was terrified that someone would find out that I was going to a psychiatrist. I was afraid to tell anyone I worked with, other than my business partner, that I was depressed. I thought CEOs and leaders had to be strong and show no weakness.
Again, I was lucky. My business partner Dave was supportive, even when he didn’t really know what to do. My new girlfriend (now my wife) Amy didn’t view me like a broken toy she needed to fix but rather acknowledged that I was going through a difficult time as we began our relationship. I had several friends and family members who showed up for me.
During my 2013 depressive episode, I blogged openly about my struggles and what I did. Since I was no longer ashamed of being depressed, I thought it might be helpful to talk about things. I had a large audience of readers and quickly ended up interviewed by a number of national business publications, including Inc. and Fortune. Several high-profile entrepreneurs had recently committed suicide and mental health was starting to be talked about in entrepreneurial circles, so I became a visible example of a successful entrepreneur who struggled with depression but was willing to discuss it.
The combination of these experiences and my liberation from my shame surrounding depression helped me realize how pernicious the stigma around depression is in our society. I ended up talking with hundreds of entrepreneurs about their own experience with mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and mania. In many cases, I was the first person, including family members, that they had ever discussed their struggles with.
I decided that part of my mission on this planet would be to help destigmatize the issues surrounding mental health. I won’t be done with this until we have achieved parity between prioritizing mental and physical health. Instead of being a stigmatized health issue, we need to talk about and treat mental health as we would any other physical health challenge. Cancer used to be a death sentence; now many cancers are treatable. Smallpox and polio were deeply misunderstood and mistreated; now they are largely eradicated. Diabetes, once a mysterious and crippling disease, is well understood and easily treated in most cases. Destigmatizing mental health issues and removing the barriers to care are critical to addressing and treating mental health diseases.
I’m incredibly moved by the community’s support of the Bolder Community Health initiative to expand critical mental health services. When Amy and I first heard about the effort to raise money for what is now the Della Cava Family Medical Pavilion, we immediately committed to getting involved. We are honored to be able to provide funding in support of the medical pavilion and for the establishment of the Anchor Point Mental Health Endowment and I’m thankful that my partners at Foundry Group have also provided a significant gift through our Pledge1% Fund.
Most importantly, I’m proud of everyone in our community who has supported this initiative, both functionally and financially. We are a special community at the forefront of many things in our society. Providing excellent care for people suffering and taking action to destigmatize mental health issues are important steps that we are pursuing in Boulder. Thank you to everyone who is helping us find our voice around this issue, elevate the conversation, and help destigmatize 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.
“None of that prior success prepared me for a moment in 2015 where the evil thoughts in my head had overtaken the rational startup brain.”
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.
Lance points to Dave Mayer for paving the way for him to speak openly with the Mental Health in the Startup Realm panel Dave led at Boulder Startup Week 2016.
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.