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The comment thread on my post Founder Suicides is vibrant and full of lots of different things, including plenty of challenging stuff to read and figure out how to respond to.
My inbox was also full of private notes over the past few days. Many of them were thank yous for writing about this, some were suggestions, and a few were angry reactions to what I wrote. Regardless, I read them all and thought about them, what they meant, and what I could continue to do to be helpful on the topic of mental health, especially around entrepreneurship.
The suggestions were generally interesting. Some resonated with me and would be helpful when I’m depressed (which I’m not right now). Others wouldn’t have helped me, but might help someone else.
This morning, as I was reading through my email, I came across this one, which I decided to post as an example. It’s thoughtful, has several specific things I’ve done when I’m depressed (spend 1:1 time with friends, drink green drinks, stop caffeine, do little things that create joy for me), and represented the constructive tone of so many people that I interact with.
I hope it’s helpful to you. And – to the person who wrote it – thanks for sharing and taking the time.
“I can’t tell you how much it has meant to me that you have openly discussed depression and suicide. I would like to share with you the following if you wanted to post it on your blog anonymously –perhaps it could be helpful for someone:
What does help someone contemplating giving up on life? Looking on my facebook notifications this morning, there were two posts –one from my daughter who survived an alcohol overdose as a suicide attempt five years ago, and who I believe is grateful to still be here, and another post from a family notifying their son’s facebook friends that he had ended his life on September 30th. There but for the grace of God go I as a parent. Furthermore, I have been at the door of suicide contemplation this past year myself. I feel like I know exactly what Robin Williams was thinking before he took his own life. My depression is not the gray, non-feeling that another writer described, it has been active pain. Pain so hard and awful that you just want it to stop. The universe is punishing you and it seems like it will never be any different. So what would be helpful to me at these rock bottom times? Not well-meaning platitudes, not “change your thinking, change your life”, not more words assigning responsibility to me for creating my reality.
There are a couple of things that I have actually found to help change my spiral. Engage me in small tasks, easy tasks; chopping carrots, washing dishes, some light bookkeeping on quickbooks, something that physically engages me, or lightly mentally engages me. Even if I don’t feel like doing it, get me actively doing some rote work with my hands.
Mention to me a time when I was happy- an actual memory of a good moment. Bring that picture back to my consciousness. Remind me that there have been good times even after I have been down, they do come back. Help me see the pictures in my mind of things that have made me smile before – my cat splayed out on a lounge chair like a drunken squirrel basking in the sun for example.
Ask me to fill my body with a deep breath and let it out, emptying my belly of breath several times in a row. And then to focus on a good image. The beauty of gorgeous fall leaves that I saw on my bike ride, for example. (From the book, Forgive For Good)
For the longer term, spend time with me. We don’t have to have deep talks, just companionship. Alone-time is obsessing time, spiraling down time, too much wine drinking time.
I heard the Dalai Lama’s longtime translator speak recently and he pointed out that depressed people revolve in their cocoon of self-obsession. Compassion is a way out. I used to volunteer my time a lot, and grew away from that somehow in my life. I used to get so much from hanging with the 3-5 year olds at my church’s childcare room. What natural joie de vivre radiates from a five year old! “Would you like to do the hokey pokey? Sure!!!!” I have signed up to look into volunteering in the play room at the Ronald McDonald house. Yes, even for busy people with important jobs and positions, make time to give of oneself where you can be in the moment.
And most importantly for the long term, look at your diet and exercise. Get a coach. Someone you have to report to. I found that I had been draining my adrenal glands from too much exercise, even though I didn’t think it was too much or too hard. The first thing my health coach did was to get me to drink a green drink every day (juiced kale, celery, apple, etc) and to get in as many greens in as I could in a day. Greens chase away depression. Her philosophy is to add things first, not take them away. Over time, I have on my own started to reduce the caffeine, which could be draining my adrenals as well. I had an incredibly happy day yesterday. I want more happy days like that, so it becomes easier to give up the things that could be causing me physically to slip into the bad space. Unfortunately a lot of us rely heavily on the substances as coping strategies, so it is baby steps at first. Add in the good stuff, maybe be a little lighter on myself on the exercise piece, and let me evolve to better choices.
Thanks, Brad. I realize that everyone has different experiences of depression and pain. My little suggestions could completely not work, but if they helped someone at all change the direction of a spiral, they were worth sharing. Perhaps, you have suggestions of your own, perhaps your blog readers do – and not the naturally happy readers trying to help, those of us who have been right there, at the door of ending it. I thought your sharing of your pact with your wife to share when you were thinking suicidal thoughts was powerful. Thank you.”
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.
If you’ve never been really depressed, it’s hard to understand what depression feels like. This is especially true if the person who is struggling with depression is someone who looks like they are on top of the world, that everything is going well, and that nothing could possibly be wrong. Many people who go through depressive periods are highly functional – I’m a good example of this. If you didn’t know me well, you wouldn’t notice. And, if you know me well, you probably think of me as tired, lower energy than normal, or that something seems slightly off. Finally, if you know me really well, you know I’m struggling to get through each day when I’m depressed.
I’m definitely in an “I’m doing better but why am I hauling my butt all over the place, and why again am I doing all of this stuff” mode. I was pondering this (after canceling some travel that I don’t need to do) when I got a powerful note from a blog reader. In it, he talks about how after reading a recent post of mine, he started to understand how to relate better to his brother who is struggling with a deep depression. The email made me smile, and reminded – if only briefly – why I am doing all of this stuff. The email follows.
For the last six months or so, my youngest brother—a very handsome, tall, intelligent, fit, seemingly-perfect person—has been battling depression. As the oldest brother, and as someone who has battled all his life to help my foreign, single mother get by, it’s but incredibly hard to understand and relate to him. In fact, regretfully, I used to criticize him for the way he felt. It wasn’t until last week, when I saw him beg to be admitted into a hospital because he felt unsafe, that I realized how serious this was. I just couldn’t understand, how can someone who appears to be so perfect in many ways, so blessed (especially compared to what we went through as children), be so unhappy and miserable inside?
Sadly, it still took reading 6 words on a blog post from someone whom I look up to most (“came out of depression on Feb. 14”) to finally understand that what’s on the outside is very different than what’s on the inside. He/You can both seem so perfect, but loving someone means knowing their deepest thoughts and feelings, understanding why they feel that way, then being there for them no matter what. I regret letting him get to the point where he didn’t feel safe. I’ve strived all my life to set an example, to be there for my family, but I was stuck in my own arrogance. I let the “knife” cut through everything and get the best of me. But it won’t happen again.
I’m so proud of my brother in every way: we never had a role model to guide us through life, to tell us how important reading and learning is, yet he’s managed a 3.9 GPA at a good school. He loves reading more than anyone I know (maybe even you, Brad..) and wants to be a doctor and writer one day. He just turned 21, but has the mind and soul of someone who’s 40…it’s crazy. Maybe that’s why he has a hard time coping..? Who knows – all I know is I’m going to be by his side always and support him in every way possible. My arrogance, confidence and toughness can go towards working my butt off and making this company successful.
If you read this far (which knowing you, you probably did…I thank you). I thank you for being you, for sharing your life’s journey with people like me. I promise to continue to pass on wisdom and give to others as you have.
Amy and I talk a lot about big issues, such as depression and divorce, in Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur. I’ve been speaking from experience on each of these topics, as I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression my entire adult life (the official DSM-IV code I have for my diagnosis from 1991 is 300.3 – Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and, in 1990, I was divorced from my first wife.
I’ve always been open about these two issues (and experiences) since they’ve had a profound impact on me. I’ve learned how to manage my OCD and, even when I’m depressed, I’m very functional (if you didn’t know I was having a depressive episode, you’d think I was just flat or having an off day.) And many of the things that Amy and I do right in our relationship are lessons that we learned when reflecting on why my first marriage, and marriages of friends of ours – many of which are entrepreneurial couples – have failed.
As I’ve been doing interviews and talking about Startup Life, I’ve been asked several times whether or not entrepreneurs are more prone to depression and divorce. While I have zero empirical data, I believe from my qualitative experience that they are no less prone to this than the rest of the population. But I don’t really have empirical data to support this assertion either.
So – I’m looking for real data. Do any of you out there know of real quantitative studies – preferably academic / social science oriented, that investigate the question of whether or not entrepreneurs are more prone to depression? Or, a separate study that investigates the question of whether or not entrepreneurs are more prone to divorce?
If you know of one, email me or leave it in the comments.