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’ve long written about the stigma around entrepreneurship and depression / other “mental health-related issues.” I was delighted to see two articles in the last day about others addressing this.
First, Felicis Ventures is committing 1% on top of every check the firm writes in non-dilutive capital earmarked for “founder development” in coaching and mental health. I love the way Aydin Senkut has characterized what they are doing and why they are doing it.
“Felicis’ bet is that by making such resources available and publicly known, founders won’t feel too proud, or too much pressure to seem successful, to address personal and team issues. Tactical marketing help can only go so far, Senkut says, when founders aren’t telling their investors that they’re unable to sleep from anxiety, or not speaking to their cofounders.”
Next, Mahendra Ramsinghani has a long article in Techcrunch titled Investors are waking up to the emotional struggle of startup founders. In it, he references a bunch of stuff, including work that Jerry Colonna and the team at Reboot have been doing around this issue. He also points to the survey he is doing for his new book titled Depression: A Founders Companion.
Mahendra Ramsinghani, my friend and co-author of Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors, is starting work on his third book to be titled Depression – A Founder’s Companion. If this is an important topic to you, please spend 10 minutes on the survey Mahendra is doing.
After the recent passing of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, the conversation around depression and suicide has escalated in a generally constructive way. More people are talking openly about depression, especially among highly creative and successful people. While the stigma around depression and other mental health issues in our society is still extremely significant, the leadership from an increasing number of visible people around their struggles is starting to make a dent in the stigma.
Mahendra’s goal is to publish a book that tells stories, anecdotes, triggers, advice, poetry, and support of all kinds from people who have struggled with depression. It’ll be aimed at, but not limited to, entrepreneurs who have struggled with depression. By compiling and sharing this writing, the journey can become easier and the stigma may continue to be diminished.
While I am not writing the book, I am supporting the concept and have agreed to write the foreword. I believe now is the time for us to accelerate our awareness of depression and continue to build support systems to help founders. We should not wait for yet another star to burn-out prematurely.
The data Mahendra is collecting on the Google form-based survey is anonymized. If you want to connect with Mahendra to go deeper on this topic, there’s an optional field at the end of the survey for your email address.
For anyone who is willing to participate in this project, thanks in advance.
Since I wrote about depression yesterday, I figured I’d highlight a long interview with Colorado Health & Wellness magazine on my history dynamics with depression titled Brad Feld’s Village.
I was interviewed by Sarah Protzman Howlett, who did a lot of research before the interview, and then spoke with a number of people close to me after we talked. She did a great job and the subsequent article captured a bunch of important things about depression. The only thing she got wrong was that I was wearing a Fitbit, not an Apple Watch.
There was a good summary of tactical things at the end of the article that a few people in my village (my wife Amy Batchelor and my close friends Dave Jilk and Jerry Colonna) suggested.
Call the doc. “Your primary-care doctor is a good place to start,” Batchelor says. “They have a much more public health component now, asking things like, ‘Are you safe at home?’ Take advantage of that access.”
Care for yourself. If you’re seeing your friend, loved one or spouse struggle, “It’s not selfish to take good care of yourself; you shouldn’t feel guilty if you need a break,” Batchelor says.
Give the gift of armor. By just showing up, you’re giving someone “an exoskeleton that they don’t themselves have or can’t create,” Colonna says.
Just be there. “You can’t really help actively,” Jilk says. “Consolation is kind of an error. It’s more about being there and listening.”
And don’t try to fix. “I see you’re struggling today” is a good jumping-off point, Colonna says, but don’t use it as a way to talk about your own experience (a common problem known as conversational hijacking).
Laugh. Or try to. “This is serious stuff, obviously,” Batchelor says, “but humor and laughter buoys the spirit and gives some relief in the moment.”
If you have a friend or colleague who is struggling with depression, I hope this is helpful.
While not a comfortable thing to talk about on Monday morning – or any morning for that matter – the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain last week generated much public discussion. And, while the suicides were tragic, some of what people said and wrote were powerful and helpful to me.
I’ve talked openly about my struggles over the years with depression. I’ve been fortunate that suicidal ideation has not been a part of this for me. I’m also fortunate that I have a partner – in Amy – who I have a set of rules with if I ever start to go down that path. Basically, I feel safe, even in my worst distress, that someone is watching and is there for me, even in my darkest moments.
The stigma around depression in our society continues to be a huge burden for people suffering from it. This is especially true for high profile and successful people. In addition to the internal loops that get created by depression, there is external judgment, as in “You are successful – what business do you have being depressed – just shake it off!” that weighs on the depressed person. And, anyone who has ever been depressed knows that when the black dog is barking at you, it’s hard to hear anyone, or anything, else.
Several people I know wrote great posts worth reading to get more context. Each post touches on a different aspect of depression, against the backdrop of the suicides, in a very personal way.
Christopher Schroeder – Anthony Bourdain and the “Impossible” Suicide
Laura Rich – Kate Spade and Depression After Business Exit
If you, like me, were rattled by the suicide of either Kate Spade or Anthony Bourdain, I encourage you to let yourself feel the emotions you are feeling. It’s a line Amy uses with me all the time: “Brad, feel your emotions.” Don’t suppress them. Just feel them. Process them. And then reflect on what you are feeling. Any, more importantly, explore why you felt them.
It’s probably uncomfortable. But it’s part of being human. And, while tragic, we can learn from it to help ourselves, and help others.
It’s a sunny morning in Toronto, so it’s time for a run. That always helps me clear my mind.
I took Saturday off, slept a lot, and read What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen.
Kate Fagan has written a must-read book for every parent of a high school or college athlete.
The story of Madison Holleran is a heartbreaking one. Maddy was a star athlete in high school, in a big (five kids) happy family with two engaged parents. She played soccer and track and, after almost going to Lehigh for soccer, ended up going to Penn for track.
And, that’s when everything started to go wrong.
Maddy committed suicide a few days after returning for the second semester of her freshman year after trying, unsuccessfully, to quit the track team.
Maddy’s family gave the author, Kate Fagan, incredible access, which allowed Fagan to write a powerful book. Many different themes are explored, against the backdrop of Maddy’s development as a teenage athlete, the internal pressures of today’s teen, the struggle of entry into college and separation from home, and how depression can take hold of someone. While Maddy’s story is central to all of this, Fagan includes her own experience as a college athlete in areas, that make the writing incredibly relatable.
It’s not an easy book since you know the ending when you start it. It’s simple to fall in love with Maddy – she’s a delightful American kid. The joy in her friendships and experiences start off rich and light. You see the turn into darkness happen slowly. And, because it unfolds against the backdrop of Fagan’s analysis and intellectual exploration, it makes it more accessible.
On Sunday, I came across a full-page ad in the NY Times with Michael Phelps talking about his own depression for a new product called TalkSpace. I found a short video for it, which is below.
As a bonus, there’s a section in the book about Active Minds with some interviews with members. This is an organization for mental health in college students, which Amy and I support through our Anchor Point Foundation and that I wrote about in the post Mental Fitness, the NFL, Active Minds, and the Competitive Workplace.
If you are a parent of a teenage or college athlete, read this book. If you want to learn more about mental health and depression, read this book. And, if you want to get involved in organizations like Active Minds, just drop me an email.
I woke up late this morning with a vivid dream in my head. I had shown up at my new house on the first morning of our occupancy. There were all kinds of people running around including a dozen schoolkids playing red devil on the patio. I didn’t have any clothes unpacked yet except some running shorts that I didn’t like and an old t-shirt. I went upstairs to go to the bathroom and take a shower. The bathroom floor was linoleum and the wallpaper was grandma’s English garden floral from the 1950s. I tried to figure out how to poop in the toilet but the toilet paper holder got tangled up in the seat cover and I couldn’t get the toilet open correctly, dunked the toilet paper in the water, and just gave up. I turned on the shower, which was a pink tub with yellow walls, miniature size, with a plastic shower curtain that only covered half the length of the tub. The shower nozzle was a wide-spray non-adjustable one so I ended up with water all over the bathroom, including the one towel that was hung on a metal rack in the direct line of the spray. The only soap that was available was a tiny petrified stub molded into the ridged indent in the wall. I gave up and went to brush my teeth but realized I had no toothbrush or toothpaste. I put my uncomfortable running shorts on and got in a friends car to drive up a windy hill to a potato restaurant shack like the one where I had my first job at Potatoes Etc., except it was in a wooden crab shack instead of a shiny new shopping mall. I struggled for a while to construct my order based on their extremely complex paper-based ordering system before giving up. A few more things like this happened on the way back to the house, including a short run through the woods, and then I woke up.
It’s a few hours later and the dream still lingers. The obvious analysis of it is that I’m feeling a lot of anxiety, but I’m not. We just had an awesome two-day partner offsite and we all showed up fully to the conversation. While I’m emotionally and physically tired, I realized my dream was a version of something I described – and then we talked about – for a while, which is the notion of absorbing and metabolizing stress and anxiety, especially when it is generated by other people.
Last year I wrote a post titled Do You Reduce Stress Or Increase Stress? after hearing a great quote by Mark Cuban at an event where I interviewed him. He said:
“I like to invest in people who reduce stress and avoid people who increase stress.”
This stuck with me because I view part of my role to absorb the stress in the system while working hard not to add stress to people who I work with. I’m not perfect, but I’ve come to understand the link between this activity and my depressive tendencies.
Specifically, I absorb a lot of stress and anxiety. I’ve become very good at metabolizing it (a word that I came up with in therapy to describe the activity that happens.) As a result, I can stay very calm in the face of enormous stress and anxiety of others. However, I do have to metabolize what I absorb (and expel the waste product in some way) or else it builds up. I also have to deal with my own stress and anxiety. If I reach my limit, I start reacting to the cumulative stress and anxiety in my system. If I don’t do something about that quickly (of which self-care: rest, running, meditating, eating right, spending time alone, not traveling, being with Amy, reading) and in a significant enough magnitude, a depressive episode of some duration starts to loom. In the extreme cases, I tip into depression.
I used to fight the idea of this. I foolishly thought “if I can just stop being stressed or anxious, I’ll be fine.” Rather than trying to prevent or avoid stress and anxiety, I’ve learned to embrace it, and all the signals around it.
The dream that I led this post off with is a signal that I’m metabolizing a large amount of stress and anxiety. While I can psychoanalyze the dream, I’ve had some version of this type of dream enough times in my 52 years on this planet to know what the inputs are. More importantly to me is the warning of a dream this vivid that I need to pay attention to me and to make sure I’ve got enough of a metabolism buffer. I’m good there as I’ve got four days at home in Boulder with Amy, working out of my house the next two days and then having a very quiet weekend.
For me, the metaphor of metabolizing stress and anxiety, which only emerged through my work in therapy last year, is a profound one that has been incredibly helpful to me. If it’s helpful to you, that’s great. If it’s not, I’d suggest a meta-insight, which is to search for a physical or biological metaphor for how you deal with stress and anxiety, in an effort to have a more constructive relationship with it.
There aren’t many similarities between the workplace of an NFL football player and that of a tech entrepreneur. My body doesn’t get pounded each week. Decisive critical thinking and typing speed are valued more than the last time I ran 40 yards in under five seconds. In both places, though, competitiveness and operating at peak performance are prized.
But what if someone falters? Or a friend or family member needs help? Over half of all humans will experience a major mental health challenge in their lifetime. This includes the VC listening to a pitch or the linebacker staring down a receiver.
Few of us show this in the workplace. Even though many of us struggle at one time or another, needing help is not part of our cultural norms as founders, entrepreneurs, and investors.
This is why I took notice when the NFL Players Association recently spoke up for mental health.
Last month, each player in the league received a “The World Needs You Here” bracelet as part of the NFLPA’s partnership with Active Minds around their Your Mind, Your Body, Your Health initiative. Some of the fittest men on the planet are now wearing it to acknowledge that everyone – their friends, family, even themselves – struggle with depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue.
I was recently introduced to Active Minds by my friend Jeremy Shure and then introduced to the Executive Director, Alison Malmon by another friend, Chris Schroeder. Alison recently moved to Boulder from the east coast, so we got together. Endorsements by Jeremy and Chris mean a lot so I wasn’t surprised when I had a spectacular first meeting with Alison. I’m delighted that she’s now living in Boulder.
Active Minds is a premier nonprofit working with young people to change the way mental health is talked about. The NFL players are sharing the message that mental fitness is just as important as physical fitness. And just like an NFL player who has an ACL injury that needs expert treatment and time to heal, the same is true for a mental health issue.
When people with a platform – celebrities, football players, me, you – are open about mental health, the stigma lessens. In the more than 500 high schools and colleges where Active Minds works, this has been happening for the last 15 years. Students with influence are changing the conversation about mental health among their peers and networks.
It takes only a few people, and then a few more people, to be open, authentic, and transparent. If you are interested in joining the #NeedYouHere movement, drop me an email and I’ll introduce you to Alison.
Amy and I are financially supporting a new movie about mental health, depression, and suicide called The Weight of Gold. Jeremy Bloom (Olympic skier, pro-football player, CEO of Integrate, and awesome human) introduced me to the creator of the film Brett Rapkin.
While the focus of the storytelling is around Olympic athletes, it highlights a challenge that one in five Americans struggles with. Our goal for supporting films like this is to help eliminate the stigma around mental health and depression. It’s an enormous challenge in our society and one that I think is worth working hard at.
This showed up in my inbox the other day from a friend of 20 years. He’s been involved in a number of companies that we’ve invested in over the years in different senior and/or co-founder roles, including CEO. It was short and sweet but captured the essence of something I often talk about with founders.
Heard you and Jerry on CPR this morning, nice job!
What struck me was your point about the gap between expectations in the role of CEO or startup founder, or investor – and the reality of depressive events/emotions that are often present – but no one gets to expose or relinquish.
I felt this first hand in my experience, both as co-founder and later as CEO. I used to *hate* seeing people around town or whatever because they’d ask “how’s the startup going?” and usually extra commentary like “oh startup rockstar, and you must be killing it, etc…” and my answer was always “no, it’s fucking unbelievable hard, and anxious, and trying, and most of the time shit is more fucked up than you could ever imagine”. You live with that veil and it always made it worse when people wanted to interact with you but position it as only successful sounding answers would work.
I learned to approach others the way I wanted to be approached:
1) I recognize everyone has a “bag of despair” they carry – you can’t see it, and anything can be in there, work, home, friends, family – serious shit is wrong somewhere for everyone at most points in time. So know it’s there, don’t assume and ask questions from ridiculously positive framing, but rather in a way that lets folks share honestly and is then actually helpful dialog to them (if they do want to take the opportunity to disclose challenges and discuss)
2) when someone asks “how’s it going” be honest – share the good and the bad, but don’t feel like you have to fulfill the stereotype and give them the sugar coated answer