Tech Has a Depression Problem
Start-up founders might seem like they've got it made, but long hours, isolation, and stress put them at risk of mental illness.
In 2011, a few months into starting Wahooly—a crowdfunding platform in which backers receive a share in the venture’s success—Dana Severson started to have bouts of debilitating anxiety. The company had started off well, but things had plateaued lately. “You see other people getting press and doing things faster than you and it makes you second guess every single skill that you have,” he says. But Severson didn’t tell anybody about his feelings. He couldn’t, he felt, because he had to be a good leader.
“Theres a lot of money at stake in this world—it's not only the investors that you need the confidence of, it’s also your co founders and employees,” he says. “I couldn’t allow them to have any sort of doubt in my ability to perform.”
After opening up to a friend, Severson learned that he wasn’t alone in his anxiety, or in his fear of admitting it. Seven months ago, he and developer Nick Ciske co-founded Startups Anonymous, a forum in which people in the tech industry can post questions and concerns anonymously and receive positive feedback.
So far, he says, about half of the submissions have been about anxiety and depression.
In tech circles, depression is “more prevalent than anyone really talks about,” Brad Feld, managing director of the venture capital firm Foundry Group, and co founder of TechStars told me. Building a company involves long hours, late nights and an enormous amount of stress. The competitive nature of the startup industry—less than 10 percent of ventures succeed—discourages people from talking about their problems and feeds into the myth that successful founders are confident and in charge at all times.
“The notion that you can be vulnerable, the notion that you can share a weakness, those are antithetical to the great CEO archetype,” Feld says.
As a result, many founders believe they are struggling alone, and slowly become isolated from social networks and resources that could potentially help them recover. Fortunately, some influential players have started to speak out, including Y Combinator President Sam Altman, who wrote an encouraging blog post addressed to founders dealing with depression and anxiety this past June. "Most of the founders I know have had seriously dark times, and usually felt like there was no one they could turn to," Altman wrote. "For whatever it’s worth, you’re not alone, and you shouldn’t be ashamed."
Depression is hardly exclusive to tech. The disorder is the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and costs employers billions of dollars a year in lost revenue. Multiple people I talked to for this story pointed out that entertainers are also known for melancholy. For writers and artists, neuroses are practically required.
Yet certain elements of startup life and culture may make people particularly susceptible to depression. Stress, uncertainty, youth and isolation—the virtual cornerstones of today’s startup—have all been shown to increase likelihood of developing the disorder. Irregular work hours and constant high stress levels can lead to both social isolation and sleep disturbances, which can aggravate depression and make people even more volatile. It’s almost a perfect storm, says Maurice Ohayon, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. “Any psychiatrist can tell you that this population is particularly exposed,” he told me.
Most founders operate under a huge amount of pressure. They are responsible for employees, shareholders, and maintaining company morale, mostly before reaching the age of 30. And especially in the early stages of running a startup, they shoulder that burden mostly alone.
Two years ago, Patrick Campbell, 27, founded Price Intelligently—a Boston-based company that helps app developers figure out the optimal price for their product—and was hit with anxiety early on. “For the first six months it was literally me in an office trying to make things happen,” he says. As the only full-time employee he made all the decisions, and would often stay up late to get everything done. “It started to eat away at my life.”
Worst of all, he says, there was no break. “It doesn't matter how last quarter went. Nothing is ever good enough, because there's always another lead and another target.”
This constant stress is punctuated by moments of sheer panic as founders have to deal with continuous threats to their fledgling companies. A woman we’ll call Evelyn, CEO of a startup headquartered in Amsterdam who asked not to be identified by her real name, says she’s been through long stretches of moderate depression and recently went through a period of extreme burnout. After getting word that a sponsor had withdrawn funding when cash reserves were already dangerously low, she burst into tears at a conference. “It's very much a roller coaster,” she says. Sometimes “everything seems to be going as it should, and then there can be dark patches, and those are the hardest bits to climb out of.”
Ohayon says that this constant roller coaster ride makes founders especially vulnerable. “They go from one state where they are totally excited and then to the deepest depression. When you snap like that so fast from one state to another, the risk of suicide is at a maximum."
Yet while near failure and extreme lows are a natural part of launching a startup, talking about these things openly is not. “There's an awful lot of bluster in the startup world,” says Evelyn. If you ask anyone how their company is doing, they’ll say “Its going really well, we’re crushing it,” says Campbell, who has lost multiple friends to suicide. Mental health problems are “taboo.”
Admitting to depression is “equated with the actual performance of the company,” Campbell says. It’s stigmatized enough that Evelyn didn’t want to use her real name, so as not to put her company’s funding at risk.
There's a building mythology that surrounds startup founders. After languishing for decades, America has regained its reputation as an economic force—and it's largely due to the tech industry and innovators like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. Startup founders are, in a way, our new American heroes—like astronauts and cowboys of yore. As Tom Wolfe would put it, they're supposed to be made up of "the right stuff"—an ineffable mix of courage, determination and grit.
In such an intensely competitive environment, where everyone is aspiring to the top of the pyramid yet only a fraction get funded, “any little thing” could be your downfall, Severson says.
It’s not necessarily having depression or anxiety themselves that are unacceptable, Severson says. In fact, internal struggles are often seen as a “badge of honor.” Even Steve Jobs went through a dark period when he was kicked out of his own company—but he eventually returned and brought Apple back from the brink of bankruptcy, revolutionizing personal computing in the process. The key is that struggling is only seen as noble if you ultimately come back from it, proving your mettle.
“You’re rewarded for hiding those feelings or overcoming those feelings,” Campbell says. “Entrepreneurship is all about overcoming. You’re overcoming the adversity of starting a business and creating something from nothing. If you can’t overcome yourself it's like what the hell are you doing?”
As a result, founders find themselves in a bubble where they can’t talk to anyone about the issues they’re experiencing, says Severson, until they’ve conquered those feelings. You end up feeling “very alone.”
Part of being an entrepreneur is putting on a good face for investors, and the high-pressure, highly competitive culture of startups isn’t likely to change. But startup depression isn’t insurmountable—as long as people have strong coping mechanisms in place. Ironically, the same things that get lost in the whirlwind of running a startup—sleep, exercise, breaks, social interaction—could be the key to tackling depression.
“Many of the things that we tell ourselves that we have to do to launch our business are counterproductive to mental health and wellbeing,” says Jerry Colonna, a prominent Silicon Alley business coach and former venture capitalist. “We become convinced that the only way to succeed is to burn ourselves out to the point that all the things we would have used to protect ourselves are wiped away.”
Campbell battled with depression and anxiety himself, and says that in addition to attending a handful of therapy sessions, he was able to manage it by reprioritizing sleep, diet and exercise. He also benefited from eventually discussing his problems with friends and business partners. Campbell’s experience is borne out by the data: Social support has been shown to be one of the biggest protective factors against depression.
Startups Anonymous recently received its first suicide note. Severson and Ciske chose not to put it on the site, but published a short excerpt.
Severson immediately called the National Suicide Hotline, which contacted crisis workers in the suicidal founder’s area. The founder declined to talk to them, but had left his email (something that is optional on the site) when filling out the post submission form.
Severson messaged him and he responded. After dozens of emails back and forth it “became more of a discussion” and the situation stopped seeming so dire, Severson says. “All the person needed was someone to communicate with. What’s so important is just knowing you’re not alone and knowing someone can relate to the exact same thing you’re going through.”
Severson had blogged about having anxiety before, but always anonymously. His post addressing the suicide note was the first time he identified himself. “If I can’t put my name behind this then nobody else is going to either,” he says.