Ending mental health stigma in the tech community
The path to entrepreneurship is never easy. The process is stressful and requires a lot of agitation, risk taking and comfort with ambiguity. The sacrifices are endless, and sometimes they come at the expense of a person’s sanity.
Founders often find themselves in situations where they are under-resourced and over-committed. While it is exciting to pursue a dream, the weight of responsibility – to employees, investors, and customers – can seem overwhelming.
Added to this problem is the reluctance of many founders to disclose their feelings to those close to them for fear of being seen as a “failure” or ill-equipped to do their jobs. Imagine for a moment that a founder was struggling with an addiction or drug addiction due to the demands and pressures of running his business. Now imagine making the worry and anxiety worse by having to reveal something like this to investors.
Michael Freeman, psychiatrist and former CEO who is on the faculty of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, investigated the prevalence and characteristics of mental health problems among entrepreneurs.
Founders are twice as likely to have depression, six times as likely to have ADHD, three times as likely to have substance abuse, and twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts than a demographically matched comparison.
He concluded that founders are twice as likely to have depression, six times as likely to have ADHD, three times as likely to have substance abuse, and twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts than a demographically matched comparison. . Freeman found that entrepreneurs are 50% more likely to report having a mental health problem, with specific conditions being incredibly prevalent among founders.
The statistics are telling, but the real, tangible impact can be truly devastating.
I say all the time that if my arm or shoulder hurts, I’ll go to work and complain. But if I couldn’t sleep last night or I’m paranoid about going out or took too many sleeping pills or drank too much wine, I won’t talk about it.
I will say that I am going to my doctor to have my shoulder treated, but I will not say that I am going to talk to my therapist.
At QED Investors, we have experienced firsthand the terrible consequences of this silence. In 2018, we lost our partner Greg Mazanec after a long battle with drug addiction. Since then, we’ve worked with Greg’s family to figure out how we can do our part to prevent others in the VC and startup worlds from suffering the same fate.
I can’t speak enough of Greg, both as a personal friend and as a colleague. He was the definition of an incredible human being – an orthogonal, tenacious, brilliant, eccentric thinker. We lost him far too soon. Today we carry it on our shoulders.
We had a team of 15 at the time, so you can imagine how close everyone was. I swore to myself and his family that I would talk about him wherever I had the chance. So whenever I show up in front of LPs or companies in my portfolio, I bring this issue to light to tackle this corrosive stigma head-on.
Stepping out of the shadows of mental health discussions can dramatically change the trajectory of outcomes. Our venture capital world is full of people going through these kinds of hardships, even before the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated people’s fears and concerns. People felt more and more isolated, depressed, anxious and helpless. Some may have turned to opioids or some other form of addiction or addiction.
The research is clear: Support from friends, peers, and colleagues is essential to overcoming mental illness. As businesses begin to return to the office or embrace a hybrid home office, organizations have a real chance to refocus their corporate culture, de-stigmatize addiction, and make mental wellness a priority. It is a unique window to focus on this disease.
The Mazanec family creates Operation Phare to tackle drug addiction and addiction in the ecosystem most dear to Greg – the founder and entrepreneurial community. It was the easiest decision for QED to lean strongly to support this wonderful initiative.
Earlier this year, QED piloted a program called Just Five with three of our portfolio companies. Created by the national mental health association Unbreakable, Just five book, in 5 minutes per lesson, the most important concepts and facts about drug addiction.
Today, we’re excited to roll out that same self-paced, anonymous educational program free of charge to over 16,000 employees across QED’s 50 portfolio companies based in the United States.
The intention of this program is to provide mental health education and catalyze informed discussion to ultimately reduce stigma.
During the year, we intend to expand the reach of this program to our international holding companies, as well as other VCs who may wish to support their founders. A Spanish language version is already planned.
Each of the six lessons has a specific theme. The first two lessons focus on the science of addiction and how certain factors such as age of first use, genetics, and environment may explain why some people become addicted and others do not.
Lessons in the middle explain the dangers of opioids and the signs, symptoms and treatment options of addiction, while the latter topics discuss ways people can help. The majority of the overwhelmingly positive feedback we have received so far has focused on these last two lessons. We learned something we already knew anecdotally: People want to help, but those who need it most don’t always know how to ask.
I have taken every opportunity I have had to discuss mental health over the past few years. I really believe if you de-stigmatize it people can deal with it. It is a solvable problem. Just like your sore shoulder, it can be repaired. We just need to do a better job of creating a culture where people can take the first step and talk about it openly.
We can – we must – make a difference. May your voice join mine.