Entrepreneurship and Depression

Studies of entrepreneurs recently have reported high levels of stress, isolation, fatigue and fear of failure. These are also symptoms associated with people suffering from clinical depression. The connection may not be a coincidence.

In the U.S. more than 30 million individuals age 12 or older have been diagnosed as clinically depressed. Antidepressants are the most prescribed medication for adults under the age of 45. Unfortunately, reports show a 50% failure rate for antidepressants. Half of the people taking them stop, with only 10% of them following up with doctors.

Women appear to be more affected than men. The National Mental Health Association and American Medical Women's Association listed depression as the top obstacle to women succeeding in the workplace.

According to Dr. Dan Mays, a psychologist and Affiliate Professor of Management at Tiffin University, “Studies have found mixed evidence when it comes to the relationship between depression, bipolar disorder (periods of depression and periods of manic states), and entrepreneurship. One study found that 49% of entrepreneurs show symptoms of mental health conditions, compared with 32% of those who were not entrepreneurs. Another study found that despite reports that bipolar traits are more common among entrepreneurs (the so-called 'CEO’s disease'), bipolar traits were no higher among entrepreneurs."

"My experience has been that for some people, the heightened confidence that comes with the manic phase of a bipolar disorder can get them into entrepreneurial enterprises. For most entrepreneurs, however, anxiety and depression are a result of the entrepreneurial process itself. Most entrepreneurs face the very real risk of losing their life savings, as well as that of their families and investors. Fear and depression are understandable responses."

Depression can lead to a lack of productivity for the business owner, which exacerbates problems by causing the business to suffer and the depression to deepen. Entrepreneurs tend to take business problems more personally than those who work for someone else.

Increasing Help

Recently, more attention has been paid to entrepreneurs suffering from clinical depression. Popular practitioner magazines like "Inc.", "Entrepreneur" and others have published several stories about the issue. Organizations such as Startups Anonymous have been established to help entrepreneurs discuss their concerns. The comradery of a support group can help reassure business owners that others are experiencing the same emotions.

Many entrepreneurs are reluctant to admit that they suffer negative emotions, much less to admit that they are depressed. The most common characteristics of entrepreneurs suggest that they are overly optimistic and know how to bounce back from failure. So when a business owner experiences negative emotions, he or she is hesitant to let employees, investors or anyone else know for fear of losing the ability to lead and inspire.

Our culture stigmatizes therapy and depression and associates asking for help with weakness. Thus, for those clinically depressed, taking that first step to pursue professional assistance is very difficult and often requires encouragement. “Talking to a professional allows entrepreneurs to express thoughts and feelings that they are not willing to share with others,” Mays said. “Also, the more serious a depression is, the more likely it is to respond positively to medication.”

Non-pharmaceutical ways to fight depression may be recommended such as exercise and talking about emotions. Of course, making the time to do these things can be difficult for entrepreneurs.

In addition to being mindful of other health issues, entrepreneurs need to look for signs of employee depression. A Gallup poll showed that depression in the work force costs companies an estimated $23 billion in lost productivity annually. As with other aspects of mental illness, hopefully it will become more acceptable for employers and employees to talk about and treat depression.

Perry Haan

Dr. Perry Haan is Professor of Marketing and Entrepreneurship, and former Dean of the Business School at Tiffin University. He resides in Rocky River and can be reached at 419-618-2867 or haanpc@tiffin.edu.

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Volume 3, Issue 8, Posted 3:54 PM, 02.03.2016