AIRTREE EXEC: Let's start talking about mental health for startup entrepreneurs

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A few months ago, one of my good friends — Allen Liao from Tzukuri — wrote a really personal and moving piece on his own experiences with depression. I can’t recommend it enough — If you haven’t read it you can check it out here.

The piece really stood out for me as I’ve had some tough bouts of depression over the years — both in startups and in VC. It also made me realise that this is a topic that doesn’t get enough attention in the Aussie startup community.

I don’t know why — maybe it’s our “she’ll be right” attitude that just ends up creating more of a stigma around mental health. Or maybe it’s just because the ecosystem is still developing.

Either way — founder mental health is a massive issue, and we don’t talk about it enough. And this means we’re failing a lot of people who might be struggling.

Founders are under an immense amount of pressure from all corners. It comes from themselves and also from the shareholders, customers, employees, family and friends around them.

Then on top of all that there’s all the added bullshit pressure that gets piled on top thanks to our ‘startup culture’ — the pressure to show everyone that you’re always ‘crushing it’, ‘smashing it’ and always on a ‘rocketship’.

Being a founder is also an incredibly lonely journey.

You’re often alone on the journey, but you’re still constantly comparing yourself to the founders you read about on TechCrunch (or at least the positive public image they project). You’re always worried that you’re not growing fast enough, not working hard enough, not shipping fast enough or not waking up early enough. This can be incredibly isolating.

It’s a widespread problem too. There haven’t been a ton of studies done into founder mental health — but the ones we have are pretty scary.

A University of California Medical School study from 2015 found that 49% of founders had self-reported mental health conditions. A history of depression was reported from 30% of founders, which is almost twice as high as for the general population in Australia.

Founders were also way more likely than the general population to report histories of ADHD (29%), substance abuse (12%) and bipolar disorders (11%).

And because of the cultural stigma that still gets attached, many founders feel that talking openly about their own struggles will somehow mean they’re seen as less competent.

This, of course is complete bullshit. Suffering from bouts of depression or other mental health conditions doesn’t mean you’re any less than capable in your role as a founder.

AirTree Ventures’ James Cameron. (Source: AirTree)

As investors — we need to work even harder to dispel these myths. I’m sure many (most?) founders see their investors as another source of pressure and stress. But a good investor should be the opposite — they should be a pressure relief valve.

They should be a source of support when you’re struggling the most. They should create an environment where frank conversations on these issues can take place with zero judgement.

This is the standard we should all aim for in our relationships with founders. I know I’ve screwed this up in the past and I’m sure I will again — but it’s something I’ll always strive for at least.

I think the best way to change the perceptions of mental health is for us to talk about it more openly. If you agree — please come along and join us at this event on November 30 in Sydney.

You’ll hear some founders, investors and other fantastic humans share their personal journeys. And if you’d like to get involved in the event and maybe share your own story — without any judgement — feel free to reach out.

If you’re reading this and are looking for someone to speak to — about whatever it is you might be going through — please always feel free to shoot me a line here.

Otherwise here are some great resources that might help too:

  • Lifeline (crisis support, 24/7): 13 11 14
  • Suicide Call Back Service (professional telephone crisis support): 1300 659 467
  • beyondblue (info about anxiety and depression): 1300 22 4636
  • SANE Australia (info about mental illness and referral):1800 18 SANE (7263)
  • RUOK: ruok.org.au/findhelp

James Cameron is a partner at AirTree Ventures.


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