Start-up & depression: The mostly ignored dark price of entrepreneurship

UNTIL I lost of friend to depression a few years ago, I probably would not have known what depression is or that it affects everyone – colour, creed and gender, let alone understood its disabling effects on those living with it. As a matter of fact, there is a distinct possibility that I may not know that Nigerians could suffer from depression or that more recently, data are showing that start-ups and entrepreneurs are suffering from what is now known as “start-up depression” and possibly a lot of African start-up founders are currently going through this right now as we speak.

Statistics shows that a staggering number of Nigerians – at least there are 32 million – suffer from one form of mental illness or the other – depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia – according to Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Femi Olugbile. Unconfirmed reports have it that there are less than 100 psychologists/psychiatrists to over 32 million cases of mental illness in Nigeria and a major news outlet in Nigeria recently reported that mental health experts have raised the alarm over increased cases of mental disorder in the country, calling for adequate facilities and personnel to curb it.

In the international community, we read with shock the stories start-up founders who struggling with years of depression, took their own lives. In 2015, we read the story of Austen Heinz, a biotech entrepreneur and founder of Cambrian Genomics, who took his own life after struggling with depression. In 2013, two high-profile suicides rocked the start-up community within weeks of each other: Aaron Swartz, co-founder of Reddit, and Jody Sherman, founder of Ecomom.

Although we have not read local stories of entrepreneurs or start-up founders committing suicides in the media, this doesn’t mean that there are no entrepreneurs or start-up founders in Africa struggling with depression, or sadly, that there are no personal cases of close friends who have taken their own lives after seemingly unending struggle with depression.

Mental health issues are often considerably neglected and often ignored in the Nigerian society and this shouldn’t be so. In fact, discussing mental illness is very much a taboo in our society and this drives those living with mental health issues deeper into dark hole of helplessness.

As several start-up founders have narrated, a start-up business can feel daunting and sometimes, survival seem elusive.  As Chris Gory wrote in his blog post Why Entrepreneurs Need to make their Mental Health a Priority,

“a start-up can feel like a pressure cooker, and those stressors are making “start-up depression” or “founder’s blues” all too common.”

He continues that the “pressure of running a company, the personal nature of your business failures, and a constant state of uncertainty can lead to intense anxiety. A founder’s once-passionate perspective can transform into an unstable frame of mind – obsessive thoughts, cycles of withdrawal and engagement, and low self-worth.”

Compounded by stress, isolation, long work hours, and lack of self-care, the aforementioned factors can lead to depression, a psychologist told me. Those who have struggled with depression say that it is “a dark and lonely place to be in” irrespective of what a person does for a living. And given that entrepreneurs’ personal health is reflected in their business health (their business successes are personal successes – and their business challenges are personal challenges), according to Shari Alexander, Persuasiveness Coach & Speaker and founder of Observe Connect Influence, they “face a unique set of challenges when depressed.”

Depression, if left untreated, can lead to an insidious cycle that continues on and on and on. A friend, who gave me the permission to share some of his struggle with depression, told me that he didn’t know he’d had depression for several years and since he worked in the start-up ecosystem, he had attributed the feeling to stress or acute burnout until he was confronted with the truth, he was living with depression.

Depression he told me, is not the absence of happiness, but an occasional (depending on the severity of the illness) lost of interest in what usually made you happy, difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions, fatigue and decreased energy, feeling of hopelessness and/or pessimism, anxiety, feelings of helplessness on a continuous basis.

Statistics shows that one in four people will suffer from depression, or some form of mental illness, in their lifetime, and with the high rise of start-up founders doing business in one of the most difficult terrains on earth – Africa, it seems inevitable that some start-up founders, entrepreneurs and employees will suffer from depression or one form of mental illness.

However, you don’t have to go through the struggle alone. Seek for help, as quickly as possible. I have included an article by Chris Myers, a contributor to Forbes Magazine that may help.