“There is this expectation that if you’re a founder then you have your shit together. There can be a lot of projecting and performing that has to happen.”

Pressure and Isolation: Addressing Mental Health Crises for Founders

Founders are twice as likely to suffer from depression, undergo psychiatric hospitalization, and have suicidal thoughts.

Melissa Kimble was building a business on the side when she got swept up in a media layoff in 2017.

Suddenly without a job, Kimble found herself thrown into entrepreneurship, putting all of her time and efforts towards scaling and monetizing that side passion project: #BlkCreatives, a digital collective for Black professionals and creatives. “Being laid off forced me into entrepreneurship, it wasn’t necessarily a jump I wanted to make,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh I need to eat today, or pay my rent—how’s that gonna happen?’”

Though not all entrepreneurs are thrust into starting a business in this way, it doesn’t mean that they are prepared for what it means to be a founder. Soon after starting her business, Kimble was faced with the financial uncertainty that came along with being a solo and first-time entrepreneur. "I wasn't eating; I was obsessively working out to release some steam and was overdoing it," Kimble tells Supermaker. "I was driving myself crazy.”

As a first generation business owner raised by working class parents, Kimble says she initially buckled under the pressure of sustaining herself and her business. “I [didn’t] necessarily have the privilege of going to someone in my family and saying ‘Can I borrow X amount of money until this happens?’” Kimble says, echoing common discussions of what it’s like to raise capital as a founder who isn’t white and male. “[It’s] is a really tough thing.”

"Being laid off forced me into entrepreneurship, it wasn’t necessarily a jump I wanted to make.”

Though Kimble’s circumstances are unique, she certainly isn’t the first entrepreneur to find themselves facing mental health challenges. Given the extreme financial and social pressures that come with starting a business, you would think there would be more discussion around what to do about it. And yet, the conversation around how challenging entrepreneurship can be is still relatively hushed.

Statistics about founder mental health are concerning. A recent study by University of San Francisco Researcher Michael A. Freeman found that founders are twice as likely to suffer from depression, experience psychiatric hospitalization, and have suicidal thoughts. They are also three times more likely to suffer from substance abuse when compared to the average person. And this situation only gets worse the longer these topics remain taboo.

For Naj Austin, mental health has been a connecting thread in her journey to entrepreneurship. After spending six years in real estate and hospitality tech startups, she was burned out and found herself searching for support. “I threw myself into work [and] never slept,” Austin explains. “It kind of reached a breaking point for me. I was really unhappy across a lot of verticals of my life, so I started to look for a therapist.”

Soon, Austin realized how difficult it was to find a therapist of color who understood her lived experiences. Inspired by this problem, the earliest concepts for her company, Ethel's Club, were rooted in the idea of providing a place where people could find and speak with therapists of color. “It naturally grew from there, but the idea of wellness is baked into our product,” she says, adding that the forthcoming social club for people of color will have a dedicated wellness room with access to therapists and other experts included as part of the membership.

But even as she built a business model around this idea of accessible wellness, Austin admits that the world of entrepreneurship still presents challenges for her, personally. “There are some days where everything is going horribly wrong,” Austin says, adding that she deals with a lot of anxiety as a founder. “It sucks, but I’ve learned the tools that work best for me.” Such tools, she says, include never working past 10 p.m., triaging her to-do list, and periodically taking time off to do something completely unrelated to her business.

Austin wishes that more business stakeholders, like venture capital firms and accelerator programs, not only invested in the venture, but also in founders’ emotional wellness. Though this is something we have seen more of in recent years (for instance, Alpha Bridge Ventures, an early-stage investment firm, foots the bill for services like acupuncture, massage, therapy, and yoga for its founders), few firms are taking actionable steps to prioritize entrepreneurs’ mental health.

To be sure, investment in founder wellness is still somewhat of a fringe movement in the startup space. But thankfully, there are still plenty of other ways that founders can work to improve their mental health—even if they lack access to these types of resources.

New York City-based career coach Cynthia Pong, JD, of Embrace Change regularly works with women of color entrepreneurs and says mental health is a top concern among her clients. “There is this expectation that if you’re a founder then you have your shit together,” Pong tells Supermaker. “There can be a lot of projecting and performing that has to happen.”

Some of the most common challenges Pong sees across her clientele are imposter syndrome, constant comparison, depression, and anxiety. “If people aren’t careful about managing their stress and doing what they have to in terms of self care, then things can get ugly pretty fast,” Pong says. Indeed, she has found that the immense pressure facing founders—particularly women and people of color—can often lead to a negative feedback loop wherein founders find it difficult to be open about their struggles, which further exacerbates them.

“There is this expectation that if you’re a founder then you have your shit together. There can be a lot of projecting and performing that has to happen.”

Pong recognizes how quickly stress management and self-care can fall to the wayside, especially as an early-stage entrepreneur. For this reason, she recommends creating habits and boundaries that are tangible and advises founders to make time for a separate part of their life that is unrelated to work, like Austin has already started doing. This could be an exercise activity, artistic practice, or community work—anything that creates a third space a founder can retreat to and forget about work.

For founders who feel that making time in their schedule for anything other than work is unrealistic, Pong recommends building other small habits into their schedule that can provide a bit of grounding, like keeping a running list of accomplishments. "Even if they're really small things, like ‘I drafted an email,’ it can help you see how much progress you're making even if results aren't happening yet," Pong says.

Today, Kimble has learned to establish some of these small self care practices, including meditation and therapy, and she always makes time to celebrate every milestone in her business. Even so, she admits there are still some days when she doesn't want to get out of bed. “I have to be mindful to take breaks,” Kimble says, adding that stopping to reflect and honor her needs has been a key to her growth and success. “I know that kind of goes against the grind culture we live in, but I’ve had to start learning how to listen to my body,” she says.

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for entrepreneurial wellness, and mental health will look different for every individual, in respect to both challenges and solutions. But where it all begins is by checking in with yourself and being honest about your needs, each step of the way.

“If you are not in a good place—mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually—that impacts every single thing that you touch,” Kimble concludes. “Stop and press pause. I know that’s easier said than done, but if you are not okay, nothing else will be okay.”

Ask yourself:

😔 How do you respond to symptoms of anxiety and depression?

Do you have routine habits or time set aside to invest back into your own mental health?