Let's Open the Conversation about Mental Illness and Entrepreneurs (Part 2/2)

Originally published on Life Science Nexus.

In our last article, we talked about how mental illness rates, particularly those of depression and anxiety, are higher in business founders than in the general US population.  Entrepreneurs may also possess innate character traits that can exacerbate or predispose them to develop mental illness.  But no one is talking about these alarmingly high rates or speaking openly about mental illness in our startup communities.

We’re here to break the stigma associated with mental illness and open up this conversation with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)’s Southeast Minnesota affiliate (NAMI SE MN).

NAMI is the nation’s largest grass roots mental health organization, based on peer-to-peer support.  There are state NAMIs and local affiliates, such as NAMI SE MN, all across the country.  Many NAMIs were founded by parents with affected children coming together in an organic manner, because they couldn’t talk about their child’s mental illness in any other setting.  Nobody else quite understood like a parent in the same position.

“[NAMI’s] mission is to improve the lives of individuals affected by mental illness through education, support, research, and advocacy,” explained Courtney Lawson, Executive Director at NAMI SE MN based in Rochester.

NAMI focuses not only on those with a diagnosed mental illness, but also people who have mental illness but don’t seek treatment, which is a fairly high number.  About 56% of adults and 80% of children and adolescents with mental illness remain undiagnosed and untreated.  NAMI also supports friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors of those with mental illness. 

Every one in five US adults experienced a mental illness in the past year.  So when you think about it, pretty much everyone is touched by mental illness in one way or another.

“Ultimately, our overarching goal is to dispel the stigma and the myths that surround mental illness so people feel comfortable talking about it and get the help that they need, when they need it,” said Courtney.

Often we think that someone with a mental illness can’t function as a member of society or hold down a job.  We think the mental illness will be blatantly obvious to everybody this person comes into contact with.

“There’s a myth that [mental illness] comes from a personal weakness or is characteristic of bad parenting or some character flaw, when really it’s a biological brain disorder.  It’s a medical condition like any other medical condition.  Yet we look at it completely differently,” said Courtney.

Sharing stories of personal experience with mental illness forms a major part of NAMI’s mission.  Courtney herself is very open about her diagnosis with bipolar disorder.  She finally received the correct diagnosis at 32 years of age, after being symptomatic for close to a decade. 

Growing up, she had a strong support base and parents in a long term marriage who encouraged effective communication skills.  There’s this assumption that if you have good family support and people to talk with, you shouldn’t need therapy.  You should just be able to deal with it, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Courtney said, “I learned skills in therapy that I apply every single day, because it teaches you to use these tools in interpersonal communication and in our relationships, and how to communicate our needs and resolve conflict.”

How do we dissipate this stigma associated with mental illness?  The most important way might be to just open our eyes.

“It’s really hard to be stigmatizing of someone when you think you have never met anyone with mental illness.  It is easy to build up this image in your head of what they look like.  But when you meet someone who is functioning well and is happy and productive and is a valuable member of the community and says, ‘I’m a person that lives with mental illness,’ that is really what breaks down the stigma,” Courtney emphasized.

43.8 million, or 18.5%, of US adults experience a mental illness in any given year.  It’s safe to say that we all know someone who is or has been affected by mental illness.  And that person may very well be ourselves.   

Successful founders and entrepreneurs coming forward and saying, ‘Yes I have been affected by mental illness’ continues to chip away at this stigma.  Cheezburger founder Ben Huh penned an emotional article expressing his suicidal thoughts after a startup failure.  Foundry Group investor and Techstars co-founder Brad Feld has been extremely open about his struggles with depression.  These leaders exposing their battles with mental illness and saying they are not invincible, and you can be both successful and have a diagnosed mental illness is just a start to break down these barriers and allow more founders to step forward for help.

NAMI runs many educational events to help break down this stigma and to dispel the misinformation associated with a mental illness diagnosis. 

All NAMI programming is led by a peer.  “If somebody goes to a support group for family members, or to a class for family members, they know that person facilitating or leading will also be a family member and share that experience,” explained Courtney.

The root of mental illness is complex and still not well understood.  There is a genetic predisposition for these diseases.  In addition, some studies uncovered a relationship between exposure to certain toxins in utero and mental illness.  Certain personality traits may also be associated with or exacerbate symptoms.  Defective neurotransmitter communication has also been observed in people with mental illness.

“[…] when we can show things like that, it lets people know that it’s not your fault.  It’s literally how you were wired,” said Courtney. 

When should you seek help for a potential mental illness? 

“The biggest thing I like to emphasize with warning signs is a change occurs.  A change from baseline,” said Courtney.  This can include a noticeable loss of interest in normal activities, changes in sleep schedules and eating patterns, or a pervasive change in mood. 

“I think we have a responsibility to each other, too, when we see those changes to ask what is going on and to listen in a way that’s supportive,” said Courtney.

The first step in seeking help for a potential mental illness might be right through your primary care doctor, who are increasingly performing depression and anxiety assessments during regular office visits.  Crafting a plan that involves some sort of therapy and medication through a professional care team is key toward managing a diagnosis. 

Managing a mental illness is not an easy road, but it can be done with patience and persistence.

“There’s kind of this misperception that you go out and you get a prescription and then you take the pill and you’re good.  Psychiatric drugs can be tricky to find the right one that works for the person.  Unfortunately, it can take a few weeks to know if it’s helping or not helping,” explained Courtney.

Therapy is also key in the management process and helps to develop skills to better understand emotions and how to manage them.  Any stress outlet or method to maintain a healthy lifestyle also goes a long way to mitigate and relieve symptoms of mental illness.  For Courtney, maintaining a regular sleep/wake cycle and exercise helped with her diagnosis.

Beyond a professional team, there are other resources that can help. 

One startup support listening service, called 7 Cups of Tea holds live chat sessions administered by thousands of trained listeners.  These service providers can’t give medical or psychological advice.  They’re just present to listen.  But sometimes that’s all it takes.

Tech entrepreneur Cindy Gallop developed the hashtag #startupstress to talk openly about the stressful lifestyle involved in building a startup, which is used to relieve frustration via social media about the often chaotic entrepreneurial lifestyle.

The NAMI website is also an excellent resource.  This page lists all local NAMI affiliates, like NAMI SE MN, and contact information. 

NAMI recently developed the NAMI Air app, which can be used to directly connect to the organization.  More importantly, the app serves as a safe place to share feelings and thoughts about mental illness in an anonymous manner and get feedback and responses from others.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is another a vital resource: 1-800-273-8255.

If you or someone you know may be suffering from mental illness, please reach out for help.  We need to keep our founders, and all our loved ones, healthy to continue to drive innovation in Rochester and beyond.