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 been open about my journey with depression and the importance of addressing and destigmatizing issues around mental health. So I was excited that one of our Techstars programs – the MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars – is looking closely at mental health startups for their 2019 class. If you’re a founder innovating in the mental health market, I encourage you to apply for this program.
The MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars is focused on
Over half of all humans will experience a major mental health challenge in their lifetime. Yet, mental health still carries a stigma, and many people suffer silently including our coworkers, friends, and family. The startup journey is immensely difficult, so the quiet sufferers include many entrepreneurs. Mental health startups that take advantage of new technologies and data could have a huge positive impact by solving these problems.
The MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars recruits globally and is stage agnostic. Founders in this program have unique access to the resources of both Techstars and MetLife, a Fortune 50 company with over 100 million customers worldwide in nearly 50 countries and serving 90 of the Fortune 100 as their clients in the US.
If you’re a founder of a mental health startup, I encourage you to request office hours with managing director Mee-Jung Jang with this form and follow her on twitter to keep posted on her startup recruiting tour. Or, just apply now as applications are open until April 7th.
I’m excited to see which mental health companies get accepted into the MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars.
Aaron Edelheit recently came out with a great book titled The Hard Break: The Case for a 24/6 Lifestyle.
He interviewed me as he was writing it so I show up a few times, along with a few friends that I sent his way. The subtitle is a good hint – instead of a 24/7 life (where you are always on, especially in a work context), Aaron suggests 24/6, where there is a full 24 hour “hard break” each week.
Long-time readers and friends will know that I generally take a digital sabbath for 24 hours starting Friday night and ending Saturday night (and often Sunday morning.) I’m off my phone, email, text, vox, and other digital channels. I read hard copy books or on my Kindle, but try to stay completely off the web. I’m not religious, nor am I religious about doing this, but I’m pretty consistent. And I have a good
enforcer encourager in Amy, who I’d rather spend Friday night and Saturday with instead of my computer.
Aaron does a great job challenging the conventional entrepreneurial mythology around how you have to work all the time, burn the midnight oil, grind it out, and be comfortable with the idea that great entrepreneurs work all the time. Is burnout really a right of passage as an entrepreneur? Do you actually have to push yourself to the absolute physical and emotional limit to be successful?
I believe the answer to this is no, as does Aaron. He asserts that each of us needs time away from work and technology and makes a compelling case that time away from work can actually make us more successful and productive in the long term.
Aaron weaves his own personal story into the book, which, rather than reading like a memoir, supports the points he’s making and reinforces the stories and examples of others. His own journey is one, like many, of a series of key moments of personal and professional success and failure that generates his current viewpoint. In addition to being a provocative book, it’s a personal book.
Aaron, thanks for putting your energy into advocating the benefits of taking some downtime on a regular basis. If you are an entrepreneur, feeling exhausted by the pressure of always being on, or feeling external pressure to never take a break, I recommend you grab this book, curl up on the couch tomorrow, and turn off your phone.
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.
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.
For the second year Amy and I are supporting the Open Weekend – a celebration of neurodiversity in the startup community – through the Anchor Point Foundation. If you or a loved one have a mental health condition or just want to learn more or help out, I encourage you to check out the event.
Friday, May 18th starts off with the Brain Crawl at Boulder Startup Week. My good friend Jerry Colonna and I spoke at this part of the weekend last year. Saturday, May 19th is the alternative hackathon being held at Techstars. You can RSVP here to attend, mentor as a behavioral health specialist or specialist in some other area like marketing, PR, or engineering, or just jump in to learn more. Sunday will wrap up the weekend with a social day of outdoor games, meditation, and more.
I will be discussing the challenges of entrepreneurs around mental health issues and how the stigma associated with it creates an additional layer of difficulty. I’ll also share my own story around mental health issues and talk about the power leaders have to influence culture, particularly as it pertains to mental health in the workplace.
There are a few tickets left so if you are interested please register and join us.
Ask yourself the following question: Why is there stigma associated with mental health but not with diabetes or cancer?
I felt no joy as I struggled with depression and the stigma that came with it. When I first had a major depressive episode in my 20s, I was ashamed, embarrassed, and incredibly secretive about my struggles. Over the years, the help and support I received inspired me to work to erase the stigma that comes with mental health issues, especially in the workplace.
As we move to change the image of mental health and educate people around it, I encourage leaders to engage in “Mental Fitness” – if you want to be a great leader you need to invest not only in your physical and intellectual fitness but also your mental fitness. This holds true for every member of the team and needs to start at the top of an organization.
AllHealth Network is a 62-year-old Englewood-based non-profit healthcare organization that provides a full spectrum of mental health and substance use services in 10 unique settings. AllHealth Network serves more than 17,000 clients annually, offering counseling for individuals and families, group therapy and substance abuse treatment in addition to a myriad of resources for leaders in business and their employees.
As part of its Like Minds movement, AllHealth Network launched a CEO/Leadership Pledge which calls on business leaders to support workplace mental health. They are also introducing “In My Mind…” – a campaign comprised of a collection of photo essays with insights expressed from the mind of a person personally touched by mental health challenges, whether direct or indirect. These faces and voices reflect a range of human diversities, acknowledging that no one is left untouched and this human experience can unite us.
Like Minds…Leaders Take Action will be held on Jan. 31 from 5 to 8 p.m. at History Colorado. To purchase tickets, please visit http://www.allhealthnetwork.org/like-minds-brad-feld.
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.