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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m feeling fine today. But I know many entrepreneurs who aren’t. They are under intense pressure, worrying about an endless stream of things coming at them, suffering under the weight of imposter syndrome and other sources of anxiety. And, in some cases they are depressed, but trapped by our own culture which stigmatizes depression.
Earlier this week Biz Carson wrote an excellent article titled There’s a dark side to startups, and it haunts 30% of the world’s most brilliant people. It started with Austen Heinz’s suicide (Austen was the founder of Cambrian Genomics) and then built into a wide ranging discussion about depression among entrepreneurs.
It highlighted a recent study by Dr. Michael Freeman, a clinical professor at UCSF and an entrepreneur, which is the first to link higher rates of mental health issues to entrepreneurship.
Of the 242 entrepreneurs surveyed, 49% reported having a mental-health condition. Depression was the No. 1 reported condition among them and was present in 30% of all entrepreneurs, followed by ADHD (29%) and anxiety problems (27%). That’s a much higher percentage than the US population at large, where only about 7% identify as depressed.
I’ve been very open about my struggles over the past 25 years with depression and anxiety and am quoted in the article. But after dinner last night, Amy discovered on Facebook that the son of a childhood friend of her’s had committed suicide. It reminded me that depression and other mental health issues are widespread and are often extremely challenging around the holidays.
I used to struggle mightily with three day weekend and holiday weeks. While the rest of the world slowed down, I felt like the pressures on me were speeding up. I wanted everyone to get off their butts, stop relaxing, and respond to my emails. I was impatient and didn’t want to wait until Monday to try to address whatever issues were in front of me. I felt disoriented, which just made me more anxious. And when I was in the midst of a depressive episode, time just strung out endlessly in front of me, in a very bad way.
I used to be especially cranky around Christmas time. I’m jewish and didn’t grow up with Christmas, I always thought Hanukkah was a stupid holiday, made up to assuage sullen jewish kids when all of their friends had gift orgies. I felt isolated and different, which just made my general anxiety and impatience around holidays even worse.
In the last decade this has eased. I now give myself up to the slower pace, I give myself space to feel however I want to feel, I rest a lot, and I hang out with Amy. I’m social, but not overly so, and avoid big gatherings which crush my soul. I read, spend time outside, and nap. I let my batteries recharge and I don’t try to get caught up on everything, but instead just do what I feel like doing.
The July 4th weekend is always one that is joyful on the surface. It’s summer. The weather is warm. People do outdoorsy things. Email slows to a trickle.
For an anxious, stressed, or depressed entrepreneur, this can be extremely uncomfortable and exacerbate whatever issues are going on.
If you are one of these entrepreneurs, try my approach this weekend. Just shut down all the stimuli. Get off your computer. Take a digital sabbath. Go outside. Lay on a couch with a book and fall asleep reading. Blow off the 4th of July party that you don’t really want to go to and just stay home and watch TV in the middle of day. Let your energy go wherever it takes you. And recognize that all the emails, all the stress, all the anxiety, and all the people will be there on Monday ready to go again.
If you are the significant other of one of these entrepreneurs, take a lesson from Amy. Be patient. Be loving. Don’t let it be all about your partner, but don’t make it all about you. Just chill. And be together. Have a vacation – from everyone and everything else.
And for everyone else, recognize that holidays can be hard. And that’s ok.
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 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.