Do People Treat Me Differently Since I Talk Openly About Depression?

As Amy and I get ready to return to Boulder today and physically re-enter the human race, I woke up this morning thinking about how I’m feeling emotionally. We’ve had an excellent three weeks up at our house in Homer, Alaska, far away from the people we know. Our only friends up here are our neighbors (whom we adore) so other than one visitor (Matt Shobe – who we also adore) it’s been a very solitary and physically introverted time.

I’ve been working a lot – typically on video conferences and phone calls for four to eight hours a day. Toss in email, some projects, and my daily writing and you’ve got a full schedule. But it’s been alone, with just Amy, in our house, far away from other people. The days have been long, with lots of light, late dinners, and even later nights since the sun doesn’t go down until after midnight. And that’s been good for my soul.

Several months ago I received the following question in email. It’s similar to a number of emails I’ve received and I thought of it this morning as I was pondering my mental health so I figured I’d riff on it a little.

“I have been struggling with depression for a while. I want to write about it, but I’m afraid that it will really negatively impact me professionally. Some investor might not write me a check, because he/she will think that I’m not a good bet, or maybe someone will think twice about hiring me down the line. Have you found people treat you differently after you’ve written about your depression? Have you had opportunities close up? Would you recommend writing about it for someone who is not as established as you are?”

Following is a rambling rant on each question.

Would you recommend writing about it for someone who is not as established as you are?”: I have no idea. In my case, I started writing about it without considering the implications. The transparency movement was one of the motivations that resulted in me starting to blog in 2004 as I played some follow the leader with my friends Fred Wilson and Jerry Colonna, who each discovered the joy of blogging shortly before I did. A decade later, I continued to believe deeply in the value of transparency as well as authenticity, which has been reinforced through my work with Rand Fishkin, Sarah Bird, Moz, and Moz’s TAGFEE code. I try to be myself, be direct, be open, and own my thoughts and ideas all the time. So it would have been opaque and inauthentic not to talk openly about depression and, given that transparency and authenticity are a key part of my value system, I never gave it a second thought beyond realizing that if I didn’t talk openly about depression, I was bullshitting myself and violating some of my core values. That said, I have no idea if it’s a good idea for someone else to write about their depression – it’s going to depend on their value system, circumstance, and mental/emotional state. However, I do know that talking about it, even privately, has helped me address my depression, so I encourage anyone who is struggling with depression to make sure they at least have a few people in their lives who they can talk to openly about what is going on with them.

Have you found people treat you differently after you’ve written about your depression? Have you had opportunities close up?  I’ve had three experiences: a few mildly negative, a few irrelevant, and many overwhelmingly positive. I’ll start with the negative. Several people who I previously was close to withdrew from interacting with me. I have no idea why – I can only speculate that they were uncomfortable, afraid, or ashamed of something, or for me. I’ve proactively reached out to several of them now that I’m not depressed and re-established close relationships, so the dynamics here are a mystery to me. A few people, instead of being passive, were openly hostile to me. I ignored them as I realized their hostility was likely more about them than about me. Many, many people reached out, provided support, opened up about their own depression, thanked me for providing leadership on this issue, or words for them, or just an example of a successful person who struggled with depression. This was the overwhelming feedback and resulted in a number of new, interesting, and powerful relationships for me. Many of the conversations I had with this set of people helped me work through my depression and better understand myself, and many of them told me that I had a similar impact on them.

Reflecting on this rant, I think people do interact with me differently in a way that is very positive and powerful. There is a lot more connection and empathy in my relationships. I’ve always had a lot of this since it’s the way I’m wired, but now it extends to many of the relationships I have from a distance, online, or are business interactions with relatively little physical or social interaction. It’s easier to get real about what is going on when things are difficult or when I see someone else struggling. And, when I need a break from humans, I just take it without worrying about it or wondering what people are thinking. At some level, I’ve let go of another layer of external judgment and validation, which already was largely absent from my psychological construct since I’m so deeply intrinsically motivated. But by helping people understand me better, they can related to me better and I can relate to them better.

So – overall – being open about and writing about my struggles with depression has been a huge plus for me.

  • When I angrily react to something occurring around me, I’ll often – not always, but it’s frequent – note that upon later reflection, I’m pissed that the thing I’m reacting to is me or my own similar behavior(s).

    When I have the courage to pay attention to stuff like this, I have a chance to improve. I struggle with this, tho, because the process includes admitting I was wrong-headed both in that specific moment as well as in a deeper, more substantive character-based way.

    Self-reflection is tough.

  • Christopher Baron

    Enjoyed your post. I have a huge amount of respect for you speaking publicly about this. Especially something as charged in our society as mental health. As I’ve been through two health issues – one manageable and one hopefully just passing or treatable – that have made running life, family, business and athletics more challenging – I eventually reached out to some people for support as I struggled with situational depression and anxiety. My thought was that reaching out was the right thing to do. I was very clear on the challenges, their impact on me, and that though I remained optimistic and the problems were addressable – I was feeling more overwhelmed than was comfortable. I found as you did that a few people withdrew, or worse, in a couple cases attacked me personally based upon their world view or spiritual beliefs – which was difficult. Though disheartening, I realized that they just wouldn’t or couldn’t show up in a positive manner and was thankful that I had learned something. The much more common response among the very few people with whom I shared was a validation of the challenges and my feelings, comments that they or someone they love had gone through similar challenges, and support and belief in me. That the later was the most common is heartening. That mental health issues – whether deep seated and difficult or like mine situational and transitory – continue to carry a stigma is I think an area where we could make a lot of progress as a society – to everyone’s benefit. More people writing publicly about this topic as you have might lead to more acceptance of this topic as being part of the human condition, and one that can be treated with as much respect and acceptance as other diseases. And better resources and funding for mental health – as for physical health – could, in my opinion, only benefit our country by creating a healthier overall population that is happier, more productive, and via proactive measure less of a drain downstream as treatable problems become bigger issues.

    • Thx for taking the time to write your thoughts – super helpful and very consistent with my experience.

  • Brad, one of the reasons I admire you is because of your stake on this. I remember reading your posts on depression and it helped me accept and recover from mine. Thanks! We actually went through depression in overlapping moments, I believe: mine “burst” in Feb-2012. I’d read your “Venture Deals” book and started reading your blog shortly before that.

    I’d just struggled to raise an Angel/Seed round for my startup, we almost went broke. I’d spend the previous Christmas working night after night to ship our product. My mother, who got a personal loan that prevented us from going broke, had a recurrence of her breast cancer (she passed away a little over a year after that). I was engaged and, as a Startup founder, had no money to afford the wedding. Things just added up, I guess, and I stopped functioning. I stayed 6 months at home, unable to leave my bed in the mornings. I left my co-founder to run things. I’d enlisted him and gave him the CEO title when we started the company as I didn’t want to do the “boring business and sales stuff”.

    Six months later (Oct-2012) I got married, started treatment and were able to go back to work. The business was going downhill because of bad decisions that were taken during that period. We had 3 months of runway and zero revenue. My co-founder left, I assumed the CEO role and, along with my wife, who joined the company one month after I got back, were able to turn things around. On Jan-2013 we reached break-even and basically bootstrapped the business from 8 to more than 50 employees we have today. Very differently from our previous “Angel Struggle”, we have a lot of interest from investors now, but we also have the luxury to go slow (on fund raising) and to focus on what really matters (the business).

    There is one important issue I see that is even worse than the “depression stigma”: is the “depression medicine stigma”. People just think you are crazy if you get the proper treatment. I see several people struggling with depression who are afraid of taking any medicine, thinking it will alter their personalities or something. And they go on suffering for years… When they have cancer they won’t be thinking twice about taking whatever the doctor prescribes, and THAT is some medicine that really screws you up…

    Depression recovery wasn’t easy and wasn’t immediate, for a long time waking up was still hard. It was a slow, ongoing process. I learned to take a bit easier, sleep better, at least 8 hours per night. Investors were supportive, although I knew they were worried I would be an “unstable” CEO. I think they are OK now.

    Brad, I will leave you with one question that puts you in the other side of the table: would you invest in a CEO who come clean to you and says we has a history of depression? Wouldn’t this negatively influence the average investor decision? Isn’t it just easier and better for an entrepreneur to just hide it? Maybe it explains the stigma depression has in this industry. And the suicides and other extreme cases that have occurred. After all, it is an industry that is all about “mitigating risk” to improve the success rate, and the image of a successful CEO is that of a self assured, strong and unbreakable person. Although, as history shows, great investors are the ones who actually embrace risk, and great entrepreneurs are actually human beings, who had a lot of struggle to get where they are.

  • I work for tw telecom, a 1.7B / year public company. On an all employee call this past year, our CEO took the opportunity to talk about her family history with depression and other mental illness. She talked about her personal experiences, how it’s impacted her as a CEO, and how her family has struggled – including the recent suicide of her nephew.

    She then went on to talk to her 3500 employees about the value of receiving help for mental illness, how we have insurance and should avail ourselves of the resources at our disposal, at how we wouldn’t hesitate to treat high blood pressure or diabetes and should view treating mental illness in the same light. And she encouraged us to extend a sense of grace to our coworkers, as you never have any idea what battles are being fought outside of business hours.

    I have never, not in my whole life, seen a leader of a public company be so candid and up front about mental illness. I am so glad she did that, so glad she took the time on a call – a call usually reserved for talk about earnings and company strategy – to open this conversation and move the discussing of depression and mental illness one step closer to “acceptable.”

    I don’t know that this translates for an individual who isn’t already a CEO or successful VC – there’s a lot of freedom when you’ve already “made it” and are a bit more in control of your life – but I am hopeful that this is a trend that will grow, and perhaps trickle down. It’s a good thing for all of us.

    • That is so awesome. I presume you are referring to Larissa Herda. We’ve met a few times at Silicon Flatiron events but I don’t know her very well. It’s great to see this kind of leadership.

      • Yup, Larissa. She has really made a priority to talk about health, wellness – well, people, really – in addition to sales. It’s a good corporate environment.

        As tw’s acquisition by Level 3 closes later this year, it will be interesting to see if the twtc culture of openness with regards to these types of conversations will filter into Level 3 with the acquired employees. I hope so. Certainly we’ve had a strong example to follow and believe in.

        I hope this isn’t the last time in my corporate career I have leadership that values these types of conversations.

    • “…she encouraged us to extend a sense of grace to our coworkers, as you never have any idea what battles are being fought outside of business hours.” I feel so strongly about this. Hopefully #RobinWilliams’ passing will open the door to more openness and candor on the subject of #depression.

  • Lindsay Caron

    Lately there’s been at least one session (or lightning talk or similar) on depression at any conference I attend. The speaker always seems to be received warmly, congratulated on their bravery, and the talk always advocates seeking professional help – and medication.

    I continuously want to speak on my experiences with depression – and why I am vehemently opposed to medication.

    I was diagnosed major depressive and bipolar when I was 13. Young developing minds should rarely be subjected neurologically altering medications. Being told I was crazy and that something was wrong with my head is a crappy thing for any adolescent to hear and internalize. One side effect of all the many anti-depressants I was on = depression + suicide. After a second attempt at the age of 18, I received electroshock therapy.

    When I was 19, I moved out of the concrete-laden strip mall hell that is the suburbs of New Jersey, headed west, discovered mountains and rock climbing and biking and camping and independence and small towns and healthy communities – and I’ve been off meds ever since. Infact, my newfound (it’s been over a decade) lust for life and happiness are generally quite infectious.

    And my friends who stayed on meds are merely pushing through, the same life they’ve found uninspiring for decades.

    People get really pissed at me whenever I say this, like I’m insinuating people should avoid treatment. All too often, we look to pills to solve our problems, numbing pain, taking on new addictions and not making necessary life changes. It’s so much easier to say there is some chemical imbalance to blame, rather than things in your life that could be changed.

    It’s this story I want to tell, and yet mental health advocates find it very offensive, arduously defending their right to declare that medication is the cure-all and should never be stigmatized by those of those who have found healthier alternatives.

    Thanks for your candor – and allowing me to share mine!

    • Super powerful – thank YOU for sharing yours. You are a brave person – if you are ever in the Boulder area, give a shout.

      I view medication as helpful in some situations, but in the same way as medication for anything else – the blind application by so many doctors of “here – take some drugs – it’ll solve your problem” is a bad way for us to operate as a society.

      • Lindsay Caron

        Thanks, Brad. Likewise, if you’re in the Seattle area.
        I think it’s an important story to share. Forgot one crucial item on the list of beautiful discoveries in life (mountains, community, etc): volunteering! Things that suddenly instill a sense of self worth, purpose & meaning – and adrenaline – are far more powerful seratonin boosters than Prozac or Wellbutrin, in my opinion.

      • Lindsay Caron

        Just had coffee with Ms Bird – who mentioned you’ll be in Seattle next week? I’m in town through the 5th. If you have time for coffee or a run… I run just under a 8:30 min mile, up to four miles. So if that doesn’t slow you down too much…. I’m @ActivateLinds on Twitter.

        • You are much faster than me. Yup – I’m in Seattle, but I’m trying not to extend myself to much and just focus on the stuff I’m coming for as I ease back into travel for work.

          • Lindsay Caron

            Looks like I’ll just have to continue to wax philosophical on your 80/20 learning theory & building startup communities with my dog – or at some random networking events. ; )
            Enjoy your visit!

          • Or by email with me anytime!

  • A A


    Thanks for sharing this. I’d be really curious how you view entrepreneurs who are upfront with depression issues. As a VC, you have to be looking for passion and relentlessness, qualities that can be hard to maintain with depression.

  • I recently had an employee tell me about his depression issues, and it made so much sense and explained a lot including some performance issues. We worked through some different strategies including him having the flexibility to work different hours to allow him time off during the day to see his therapist and go running (both of which help him manage it).

    The more “successful” people are able to speak about it and are public, the easier it becomes for others to ask for the help they need. Think it’s really important and I’m glad it turned out more positive than not for you. As for those that didn’t get it or feared it, i think it was the brilliant Maya Angelou who is attributed with the phrase, ‘when people show you who they are, believe them” 🙂

    • Praise to you for listening and being open to the employees issue – and working with him to come up with different strategies. It takes braveness on his part to even raise the issue and it’s powerful when executives and managers work hard to help their direct reports succeed. This is a great example of it – well done!

      • Thanks but honestly it’s not a big deal. The big deal was the person having the courage to say something in the first place.

        I think the real issue is that many employers and people in general do not see mental health issues the same way as other ones. Just handled this the same way i would if someone came and told me they had had a diagnosis of cancer and needed treatment. If more employers just treat mental health as if it’s just that, a health issue that is not a choice for the person, I think a lot of things would change.