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Founder Depression: A Side Effect of the Entrepreneurial Bubble

An entrepreneur looking depressed

Being an entrepreneur is challenging. It’s not uncommon for startup companies to fail. In fact, about 90 percent of all tech startups never make it off the ground. But increasing evidence is showing that entrepreneurs experience depression more commonly than others. As a result, the condition has even earned its own term: “founder depression”. And like the millions who suffer from routine depression, many entrepreneurs are not even aware they have it.

Much of the problem related to founder depression has something to do with the nature of entrepreneurs themselves. Unable to see past their own limitations and weaknesses, they fail to appreciate the features of entrepreneur depression. Likewise, their innate personalities may actually heighten their risks for these conditions. In addition to understanding the disorder, it is important to know where to turn for help. And given its prevalence, these are essential insights that any entrepreneur should have.

Brad Feld talks founder depression.
An ever increasing number of entrepreneurs means an ever increasing number suffering from entrepreneur depression.

Founder Depression by the Numbers

The statistics regarding entrepreneur depression are not favorable. In a study out of the University of California in San Francisco, a total of 242 entrepreneurs were studied. Based on the data, almost half had experienced some type of mental health issue in their lives. Depression led the list with other conditions like anxiety and attention deficit disorder being close behind. And overall, it was found that about a third suffered from founder depression.

At first, these statistics may be quite shocking. However, it is common for entrepreneurs to experience frequent highs and lows. This has often been compared to a roller coaster of emotions, which heightens the risk for entrepreneur depression. But the ups and downs of business is not the only issue at hand. In fact, entrepreneurs seem uniquely vulnerable to depressive conditions based on their personalities.

Success can sometimes lead to depression, too
Founder depression is often the result of a Type A personality failing in a business endeavor – or even succeeding.

Common Ground for Entrepreneur Depression and Euphoria

As it turns out, the same features that make entrepreneurs successful also increase the risk for founder depression. In general, key personality attributes for entrepreneurs include risk-taking, goal achievement, and incessant innovation. These allow opportunities for unique success in the marketplace. But when risk-taking fails, goals are not attained, and progress stagnated, this becomes fertile ground for entrepreneur depression.

In addition to these issues, many individuals simply do not have an entrepreneurial personality from the start. Despite the fact that two-thirds of all adults want to be startup founders, much fewer have what it takes. A discrepancy between wanting to be an entrepreneur and having the inherent characteristics to support success is also a problem. And similarly, this can predispose someone to founder depression as well.

Elon Musk talks entrepreneur depression
Icarus may have perished flying too close to the sun, but it’s possible had he landed safely he would’ve suffered depression afterward.

Recognizing (and Treating) Founder Depression

Like major depressive disorder in other situations, founder depression requires specific criteria to be present. For one, a depressed mood or a loss of interest in pleasurable activities must be present for at least two weeks. In addition, other common features need to also be present to a significant degree. These features can include feelings of exhaustion and fatigue, sleep disturbances, appetite changes, and others. If there is any concern that entrepreneur depression is present, then seeking depression treatment is imperative.

cartoon of three startup founders frowning in pain because they’re experiencing founder depression or entrepreneur depression
Evidence says that entrepreneurs experience depression more commonly than others. What impact can this entrepreneur depression have on future entrepreneurs?

Knowing that founder depression exists, and appreciating its common features, are important steps in the right direction. But at the same time, knowing where to turn next is also important. Experts recommend seeking help from a physician, counselor, or therapist. Likewise, numerous support organizations and hotlines also exist. These include the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the National Alliance of Mental Health, and others. If any suspicion exists that founder depression may be present, encourage seeking professional help.

Awareness and Expression Remain Important

As greater awareness of founder depression grows, barriers in seeking help and treatment will decline. Unfortunately, the stigma associated with depression does exist, and this can be particularly problematic for entrepreneurs. But failing to identify and manage founder depression will only make things worse while increasing health risks. Entrepreneur depression, like other depressive conditions, reduces concentration, and affects good decision-making. As a result, things can go from bad to worse if not treated. From this perspective, it is therefore essential that the business world and beyond acknowledge that founder depression exists. In turn, this will pave the way for a better future for all.

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