Is depression a well-guarded secret in the startup world?

Is depression a well-guarded secret in the startup world?

Monday January 19, 2015,

15 min Read

“I started having difficulty concentrating and making decisions. I could not remember details. I was always tired as if a vacuum cleaner was sucking out my energy. Instead, I was filled with guilt and worthlessness. I would keep awake or sleep late into the afternoon. I was losing interest in what I loved doing. I lost my appetite for food and sex, and was constantly anxious with an empty feeling.”

If you weren’t listening, you’d say it sums up the malaise of a highly tech-driven world. We have all gone through this at some point and have quietly resigned to the fact that stress and anxiety are part and parcel of our life today with the consequence that we regularly ignore such confessions from friends, family members and even colleagues until it is too late.

The above revelation was made by an entrepreneur in an anonymous post in 2012 on Quora to a question on how often an entrepreneur has to deal with depression.

He writes, “This depression had been triggered by the collapse of my second startup (the team disbanded following some petty arguments). I was broke (again), my parents were not well, my personal life was a mess, and most importantly, I felt that I could not speak to anybody about my troubles because I felt nobody would understand. The entrepreneurs I knew in my circle were not very good friends of mine (I had been around in the startup scene in Pune / Mumbai for around one and half years) and the friends I had were all salaried professionals and would not understand how much of my life I had poured into my startup. I blamed myself for my lack of success, and started wishing I had taken up my first boss's offer to relocate to the US and earned enough to at least give my parents a happy, peaceful and contented retirement.”


So, you’re depressed, huh?

What we understand of depression – ‘Oh! come on, snap out of it. I wish I had the luxury to wallow in self pity like this’ – is far, far removed from the truth. Depression is not just stress, nor is it only sadness. Depression is an illness. “It is sadness plus,” as Dr Sandip Deshpande, Consultant psychiatrist, sexual & relationship therapist, puts it.

According to him, there are three core criteria that psychiatrists assess to figure out if we can actually snap out of it or if we need medical intervention: When our sadness becomes all pervasive, when we feel exhausted even though we have been lying in bed the whole day (sometimes people say the exhaustion is such as if they just ran a marathon), and when we lose interest in things that gave us joy. If these feelings persist for two or more weeks, it is time you sought help.

Now that’s a tough demand. It is easy for a mere mortal to seek help. To admit they failed. To show the world they are weak. How can a startup founder, who has chosen to ride the tiger, seek help?

By its definition, an entrepreneur is someone who creates what others cannot build or cannot even see. It means navigating blinds alleys of fundraising and customer acquisition with an eyes constantly on your promise to deliver on ROI; and doing all this while riding the tiger – doomed if you dismount. “Sometimes it seems we simply live to die another day,” says a frustrated entrepreneur.

Brand consultant Harish Bijoor who has seen the making and breaking of many companies agrees.

“Yes, the startup environment is really a time-bomb. The environment is frenetic, fast-paced, low on instant gratification and high on blood pressure scores. There is a lot more of depression in this space than you can fathom. More often than not, this depression is aided by terrible eating habits, which adds to the situation negatively. Success rates are certainly low, but passion rates are inversely proportionate to success. Therefore, you find a treadmill eco-system which just does not let you get off.”

It is said that 80 % of startups ‘die’ within the first three years of starting. What happens to the founders, and team members who reposed trust in the founder? “Everyone wants to be like the Flipkarts and Snapdeals swimming in trillions and billions of dollars, make headlines daily and become the new celebrity,” says a Bangalore entrepreneur, requesting anonymity. “I know some fellow founders who have had to shut their startups; they are now down in the dumps. What gives me hope is that they have sought medical help.”

In this world where we worship success, failure becomes the devil that we must shun. The entrepreneur in his anonymous post on Quora said: “I knew I was depressed and was ashamed of admitting it to myself. I thought of myself as a failure because I felt weak, and I felt weaker because I thought of myself as a failure.”

On New Year’s Eve last year, successful Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone tweeted:

“Anxiety, Depression and Panic Attacks are not signs of weakness. They are signs of trying to remain strong for way too long.”

This was before her recent confession to a newspaper that she had spent a large part of last year battling depression. Though the reactions on social media proved how little we know about mental illness and how ready we are to pass judgment, it also showed there is a great need to build awareness and support systems.

“If you think that young and successful people cannot succumb to depression, you are wrong. One out of four people suffer from depression today, and that one person could be your favourite movie star too,” says Dr Sandip. Or a fellow entrepreneur at your accelerator.

According to media reports, in 2011, the UPA health minister had estimated that six to seven percent of India's population was suffering from mental illnesses. At a conservative estimate, this would translate into more than seven crore people. According to Dr Sandip says, what adds to the trouble is the skewed ratio of psychiatrists and patients. “We have around 3500 to 4000 psychiatrist for our 1.2 billion people. Compare this to the UK where there are 12,000 to 14,000 psychiatrists for 64 million people,” he states.

Hold my hand

In such a dire situation of every man for himself, the creation of support systems becomes imperative.

When American entrepreneur Dana Severson opened up about his battle with anxiety, he learned that he wasn’t alone in this fight. Along with his developer friend, he founded Startups Anonymous, a forum where people in the tech industry can post questions and concerns anonymously and receive positive feedback. So far, he says, about half of the submissions have been about anxiety and depression. Recently, they received a suicide note, which they did not publish, but took action and managed to save the life of the entrepreneur with the help of his email id on the site.

Dana believes that in an intensely competitive environment, “where everyone is aspiring to the top of the pyramid yet only a fraction gets funded, ‘any little thing’ could be your downfall.”

Besides working with portfolio companies on strategy, product, sales, marketing, boot strapping, ‘plumbing and whatever else is required to make the startup kickass,’ Sameer Guglani, Co-founder at The Morpheus, is helping founders train their minds to successfully negotiate the landmines in the startup terrain.

“We spend a lot of time with founders trying to understand where they are coming from. We know all about their family, friends and girl friends and boyfriends, and the issues they are facing. Three-and-half-years ago, we took up an exercise to understand why companies do not take off. We’ve realised that the outcome of a startup is determined by the actions of its founder.”

Guglani, who reveals that his brother had a breakdown two years ago, is pursuing the concept of intuitive mind and how it helps us go with the ‘flow’ in making the right decisions. The idea is to provide mental tools to all their founders to achieve the right balance. “A sense of higher purpose is very important in an entrepreneur’s life. It cannot be all about money,” he remarks. “Look at Aamir Khan, he makes a lot of money yes, but that alone is not his driving force. Compare that to say someone like Ekta Kapoor. You know what I mean.”

A proponent of Integral Yoga, Sameer is offering a retreat in February in Nainital that will help participants tap into the universal consciousness of oneness.

Rutvik Dohi, Director of Inventus (India) Advisors, has often lent his shoulders to entrepreneurs struggling to tackle the pressures and demands of running a business. “Most entrepreneurs go through a roller coaster of highs and lows. They are the captain of their ship and cannot afford to seem weak in front of their crew. They have to maintain a ‘cool’ façade. We understand this.” Rutvik says he has been through a similar phase, and his advice to entrepreneurs is “don’t marry the company. Keep your personal side detached from your company.”

Is depression a well guarded secret in the startup world?

Chemical ‘locha’

Traditionally, in cultures like ours where suffering and internal struggles are considered to be important prerequisites to building character, it becomes even more difficult for those suffering from mental illness or even a mild form of anxiety and depression to share their feelings. In the absence of social support the dark cloud quickly engulfs the individual.

Well-meaning people around you from whom you expect support and understanding unknowingly beat you down comparing your state to nothing more than lacking determination. That entrepreneurship is all about overcoming hurdles, and if you cannot get a grip on yourself, how the hell can you run a company.

Not undermining the value of setbacks that push us to high goals, we must understand that for people suffering from depression it sounds like yet another nail being drilled into their corner box where they have taken refuge from the world.

Tech prodigy Aaron Swartz who took his life in 2013, in a blog post titled, ‘Sick’ wrote about depression in 2007: “Everything you think about seems bleak – the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go away either. Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.”

When counselor Maya Jayapal sees clients she makes sure to determine whether talking to her client will be enough or if they need to be referred to a psychiatrist who can prescribe medicines.

“There is situational depression and then there is chronic depression. Support and counseling help you get out of situational depression, but medication is important if your suffering is chronic. The medicines help you stabilize and get a grip on your life.”

All alone at the top

In his two-decade career as a corporate executive, an entrepreneur, a mentor and coach, Sanjay Anandaram has been a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India. Commenting on the growing discontent in the startup world, this seasoned insider says,

“From the office to the bedroom, I see the impact of stress and pressure on entrepreneurs.”

Sanjay has seen founders contemplating extreme measures following setbacks. “The way I look at it, people go through this dark phase in extreme loneliness. They are not ready to accept that there is a problem and that it is affecting their relationship. Divorce rates and breakups are high.”

Sanjay illustrates this with the story of a founder of a young company. He led a fast paced life, always out there with a desire to make big bucks. He made false claims of growth when the reality was just the opposite. He was in denial. His relationship with his wife broke down and she walked out on him. It was so bad that the company was close to shutting down. But good sense prevailed. He realized there was a problem and has managed to be up on his feet again. “The younger entrepreneurs lack life skills and sometimes cannot handle the demands of the startup world. Early burnout is inevitable. They have no time to create strong bonds with the community as it is mostly transactional,” states Sanjay.

In such a situation family support can make all the difference. “Shit will happen, but remember it will pass,” says entrepreneur Kulin Shah, whose startup Wishberg was acquired by Freecharge recently. Kulin started out when he was 28 years old in 2011. His dad had to push his retirement so that there was no undue financial pressure on him. “You see your family making sacrifices for you and though at one level you are anxious to make it work for that reason alone, at another level it also acts as a great motivation.” Kulin feels entrepreneurs take on too much with the result that responsibility of their teams, family, relationships, friends and society starts to hang like a sword above their heads.

Referring to the movie, ‘All That Jazz’, a semi-autobiographical tale written and directed by the legendary Bob Fosse, Sanjay remarks, “We need to make a distinction between who we are and what we do. Most of us end up circumscribing our whole identity with our business.”

As an exercise in self awareness, Sanjay asks his business students to write their names on an empty, white card along with the designation choice, and name of their dream company. On the other side of the card, he asks them to describe themselves in a few words. “Most often I notice that the sense of self always comes from an external entity. ‘I am the CEO of Apple, HCL or Google.’ This sense of borrowed self can never take one far.”


Open up, help others

The anonymous entrepreneur who wrote on Quora finally got his self worth back. He is on to his third startup. He writes, “To be honest, the following might seem stupidly simple. But it is what helped me, and I hope it helps someone else too.

1. Reach out to your friends. Doesn't matter if you think they won’t understand. Your good friends should and will give you a helping hand in any way they can. Have a little faith in them.

2. Reach out to a psychologist. Especially if you feel that you cannot talk to your friends. It really helps to be able to talk to some absolute stranger. You are less constrained, and you feel lighter after "someone else shares your burden." It was only after I had spoken about my troubles to a psychologist, that I had the courage to tell my friends. Also, there might be hormonal reasons for your depression, and you cannot find that out without medical help. (Don’t expect an American TV style couches though!)

3. Deliberately bring structure to your life. This is the most important thing that all the exercises my psychiatrist gave me did for me, and I am extremely grateful for this. It started off with a very basic schedule which I was supposed to make, and then stick to it, e.g. ‘have breakfast at 9am, lunch at 1pm, and dinner at 10pm.’ Even achieving this gave me much needed relief. And then make your schedule more complex. E.g. insert your daily reading into it, insert your calls to your family, schedule some time to listen to music, and if you are the praying sort, then your daily prayers. The key is not to have a super schedule to achieve a lot, but to just achieve more and more. Even if that ‘more’ is actually trivial things.

4. Read, watch, listen to, and do fun and inspiring stuff.This is very important, I feel. Initially, I would go through a bunch of ‘FRIENDS’ episodes, and not even laugh once. But as I started working on my schedule (yes, I scheduled these ‘fun sessions’), I started to be able to appreciate the humour and the inspirational stuff much better. I watched a lot of ‘George Carlin’, ‘Louis CK’, ‘FRIENDS’, read about great men and women, and most importantly, I started socializing with my friends again.

5. Stay away from booze and cigarettes. This is not a preachy statement, but one of concern. I say this because it is very easy to lose control during a depressive phase. I used to be a very moderate drinker and a very occasional smoker (once in a month). And I used to think I was absolutely under control when it came to my vices. And then one day in the middle of my depression, I realized I had been drunk for 36 hours straight, and had smoked three packets of cigarettes in the same period, both new highs (lows?). I quit then cold turkey then, and have only recently gone back to the earlier extremely moderated version.

6. Look towards the future.Imagine your life in the future, and start thinking of ways to get there. This might seem like a trivial exercise, but it helps to break you out of the loop. If you keep seeing the steps to your ideal life right in front of you, you might just take one of them! And soon you will find that ‘this too shall pass’ is actually true!”

Dedicating 2015 as the year in support of mental health awareness, Deepika Padukone, in yet another tweet on December 31, 2014, said: “When you look at a person, any person, everyone has a story. Everyone has gone through something that has changed their life.”

Tell us your story of struggle with depression or any other mental illness, even if anonymously. It will help save someone. Write to[email protected].

Watch this video from WHO on depression.

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