Founders and Mental Health

Last week Sam Altman wrote about Founder Depression. Catherine Shu followed on, among others, with a candid telling on TechCrunch of her struggles with depression. I applaud them both.

Many startup founders I know aren't depressed though. They are anxious.They are on the spectrum of anxiety disorders. Real existential concern about whether they'll make it. Whether they're doing the right thing. Whether they'll raise money. Actually that last one isn't anxiety: strictly speaking anxiety is generalized and unfocused fear. A lot of people who are running startups fit that bill though, they have terrible unspecified fear (of failure). You can get pretty far down the anxiety spectrum and just seem like a founder who cares. That is dangerous.

Highlighting depression is useful but also limiting. It can demarcate people who have had certain problems without highlighting others. I believe our community — Silicon Valley, Y Combinator, startup founders, or all ultra-high-functioning professionals — should be having a conversation about mental health more generally, about the sources (sometimes quite dark) of our motivations, about pathologies, about depression, about anxiety, and about other problems. Or, at least, be more comfortable having those conversations privately.

I know founders who are on the depressive spectrum too, which can range from the blues to deep clinical depression. I have a history of depression myself. I have not had a serious depressive episode since I took a year off from college and invested in intensive therapy, but most people don't have that luxury — or they are not comfortable taking that much time given how taboo mental health can be. I remember when I was in the depths of my depression spending eighteen hours in bed with a dreadful sense of melancholy. That's a serious case — I couldn't have run a startup when I was depressed — but depression hits people in different degrees. Someone who seems fine often isn't.

Depression and anxiety are just two examples of the challenging mental health that startup founders can have. Anxiety and depression are often described as opposites, which is too simple a story, and they need not be opposites in our mind. Either can be dangerous and destructive. We need to talk about both. The names of anxiety and depression can sometimes just obfuscate things more: We need to talk about much more too. I know a few (medicated or not) bi-polar founders. I know a few diagnosed with OCD.

No matter the diagnosis or the name, founders can feel isolated by their mental state. They can feel alone, which can make them more depressed, more anxious, more obsessed or whatever. But whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, other people have it. People in the community have gone through it. Many people have gone through it, in fact.

Over the last year I have also found that many startup founders had some deep personal trauma in their early lives. Glen Moriarty, the founder of 7 Cups of Tea, and I have discussed this idea at length and it has come up with many folks both inside and outside the YC community: startup founders insatiable motivation often comes from trauma.

We are all unique but most of our problems are not. Startup founders are so often a community that helps one another with introductions or advice. I hope that in time we can all be as comfortable talking about our mental health. That we could be as comfortable giving advice about our depression or our anxiety as we are about fund raising.

I might write a lot more about this soon. I don't know. Some of my friends, colleagues, and investors have cautioned me against being too public about my own history and my own traumas, but any founder should feel they can contact me, if no one else, whether they're depressed or anxious or something else (or use 7 Cups of Tea).