We recently held an AMA with Brad Feld, Managing Director at Foundry Group, and co-founder of Techstars, where we discussed Mental Health Awareness & the Startup Community.
Mental health issues can be considered a huge liability – to investors, customers, partners, co-founders, employees, etc. Should entrepreneurs disclose these issues to build trust and understanding, or is it wiser to keep them private and hope that they do not manifest?
I think it varies a lot, based on the company, the culture, your investors, and the dynamics between you and your investors. When I was running my first company and I had my first depressive episode, I was in my mid-twenties. We didn’t have any investors. The business was owned by myself, my partner Dave, and my dad.
During that period of time, not only was there a huge stigma around mental health issues in general, but people weren’t really talking about depression much, and there was a lot of stigma in my own family around it. I had an enormous amount of shame that I was depressed, so I went to a psychiatrist and then I took medication.
Essentially, there were two people I could talk to besides my psychiatrist. One was Dave and the other was my wife, Amy. As I fast forward 25 years later, I think the stigma and shame associated with depression is lower, but people’s reaction to depression, especially in a work context is very challenged.
If I was your investor and you came to me as a CEO and said, “I am depressed,” my reaction to that wouldn’t be to tell you that you’re unqualified to be CEO. It would be to spend time with you and talk about what is going on, and try to figure out how to get you help in the same way that I would react if you came to me and you had broken your arm or leg, and you couldn’t travel for three months. I wouldn’t say that because you had broken your leg you couldn’t be CEO, but let’s talk about how to configure things around your leadership team and around the company so you can be effective.
I put myself at one end of the spectrum, and then you have people at the other end of the spectrum. I had a conversation with a group of people that included some investors and some very well-known entrepreneurs earlier this year. One of them was adamant that if you’re depressed, you shouldn’t be CEO.
Another person’s view was that the board should give you a six month leave of absence for you to come back as CEO in six months. This doesn’t make sense to me, and this isn’t a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. The short version is that there’s no easy answer. You as the person who is depressed, or as your partner or co-founder is struggling with depression, figuring that out becomes a better part of your own journey as a founder versus looking for the one answer.
Techstars put together a list of resources for anyone who thinks they may be suffering from mental health issues, or anyone who wants to learn more about the topic. You can find them here.