mental illness

Rochester Rising Creates Online Communication Group to Support Entrepreneurial Mental Health in Rochester


­After three attempts to hold our listening session on mental health needs in the Rochester entrepreneurial community, we have decided not to reschedule this event. ­However, we­ would still greatly appreciate your help and input on this important subject. If the mental health needs of our entrepreneurial ecosystem and creating solutions to support these needs is of value to you, please take a few moments today to fill out this brief survey.

The goal of this survey, and of the weather-thwarted listening session, has two purposes. The first is to better understand current mental health issues facing Rochester’s entrepreneurs. The second purpose is to brainstorm possible events or programming that may solve these pain points. Perhaps some of these events or programs could be provided by Rochester Rising

If this is something of importance to you, please take five minutes to complete the survey so we can create things of user-driven value in the community. 

While we collect these responses and have additional conversations in the community, we’ve created an online communication group to facilitate some of these needs. This group is not meant to be a place to offer medical advice or to provide professional mental health guidance. It is meant to be a platform for community-based communication to connect and share best practices, information, and resources related to mental health.

To request permission to join this closed group, search for “RochMN Entrepreneurial Communication Group: Mental Health” on Facebook.

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.


Let's Open the Conversation about Mental Illness and Entrepreneurs (Part 1/2)

(Originally published on Life Science Nexus.)

Mental illness rates in the startup community are alarmingly high, yet we refuse to talk about it.

In a survey conducted at UCSF last year, 49% of the 242 entrepreneurs questioned reported a mental health condition.  That’s much higher than the one in five US adults, or 20%, who experience mental illness in any given year. 

Depression was the number one reported mental illness in this UCSF founders cohort, affecting a whopping 30% of the entrepreneurs surveyed.  ADHD followed close behind with 29% and anxiety with 27%.  These rates were elevated compared with the general US population, where 6.9% report depression and 18.1% are affected by anxiety.

If unmanaged, these mental health issues may be fatal.  The startup world was shaken last year by the suicide of Cambrian Genomics founder Austen Heinz at the age of only thirty-one.  Unfortunately, Heinz is not the only entrepreneur who has ended his life.  

Mental illness has a stronghold on the entrepreneurial world.  It’s time we started talking about it.

“Mental illness is really where some biology in the brain is not functioning right.  It actually breaks down to how neurotransmitters are communicating or not communicating.  There’s some really interesting brain imaging out that shows the differences between the brain of someone who lives with a mental illness versus someone who does not.  You can actually see those differences and activity,” explained Courtney Lawson, Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) SE Minnesota

Entrepreneurship is often glamorized by this get-rich quick, travel the world, and work for yourself idealized lifestyle.  However, there is a mountain of pressure associated with running a business that can do some serious damage to the mental psyche.  It’s not all unicorns and Shark Tank.  It’s a meat grinder and some of us just don’t make it out. 

Being an entrepreneur is akin to riding a roller coaster without a seatbelt.  Often we, as founders, tie our self worth to our business.  Because really, our business is our baby.  We birthed it, and nurtured it, and want it to not only survive, but to thrive.  Our emotions are so tightly tied to the success of the business, we just ride the ups and downs and plummet from despair to sheer ecstasy sometimes over the course of an hour.

Entrepreneurship is lonely.  It’s often just you alone making your own decisions and your own mistakes.  Entrepreneurs often work long hours to build and grow their businesses, and seemingly dispensable time sucks like physical activity and time with family and friends go right out the window.

Sometimes, it’s impossible to think about anything other than your business.  It not only consumes all waking hours, but it creeps into your sleep.  It’s easy to second guess decisions and constantly worry about time demands.  There are enormous financial burdens involved in starting your own business.  Some entrepreneurs borrow from family members, max out lines of credit, or cash in 401Ks to finance their dreams.

Beside these already behemoth stressors, we all are very well aware of the high rate of failure associated with startups.  A research project out of Harvard Business School found that 90-95% of startups fall short of their initial projections and 30-40% are eventually forced to liquidate their assets. 

We idolize unicorns, startups with valuation over $1B, and the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.  But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for these companies.  There were dark and desperate moments along the path to wealth and infamy.  However, these points rarely get touched upon and entrepreneurs often mask when themselves or their company is faring poorly.

Call Taylor at (507) 424-3648.

Call Taylor at (507) 424-3648.

Some research suggests that entrepreneurs may possess character traits that actually predispose them to experience stronger emotional states and mood swings.  Entrepreneurs are often very energetic, creative, and innovative people that can easily cycle through states of depression, hopelessness, and despair, with emotions ranging as far as suicidal.

So not only are entrepreneurs burdened with a serious amount of pressure, they may already be predisposed to more severe emotions than the generation population, which may underlie the higher rates of mental illness in the founder community.

But it may not all be bad news. 

In his book “A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering Links between Leadership and Mental Illness”, Nassir Ghaemi explores the relationship between extremely effective leaders in time of crisis and mental health issues.  Ghaemi dove head first into the lives and medical records of powerful, effective figures like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, and John F. Kennedy.  He found they all had some form of mental illness, which may have made them even greater leaders in times of crises.

“It’s really interesting how leadership and mental illness seem to go hand in hand, as does higher IQ scores, with some diagnoses.  Some of this research that’s happening now shows that [a mental health diagnosis] doesn’t have to be this terrible, dismal thing,” explained Courtney.

Help is available to manage mental health diagnosis.  However, entrepreneurs are often hesitant or ashamed to seek professional guidance.  We might try to downplay a mental illness to avoid being perceived as weak or vulnerable.  We might be afraid a mental illness diagnosis would hurt an investment or diminish our level of respect with other founders or employees.  We might think those affected by mental illness can’t function properly and don’t want to have that stigma attached to ourselves.

Refusal to address mental health issues in entrepreneurs does not make them go away.

We’re all familiar with the fast-paced, deadline-oriented, stress-filled lifestyle of an entrepreneur.  I’m not telling you anything new here.  But I challenge each of you to take some time to assess your own mental well-being. 

Are we all really doing ok? 

The startup community needs to step up and more openly address these issues running rampant in our founders.  We need to break the stigma associated with mental illness.  It’s not a weakness and it’s not your fault.

I had the opportunity to sit down with my good friend Courtney Lawson from NAMI, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization, to better understand mental health diagnoses, face the stigma associated with mental illness head on, and work to raise awareness of mental heath issues to build a healthier community for us all.

Please check back for the second part of this story later this week.