Some of the world’s wealthiest, smartest, most successful entrepreneurs are choosing to take their own lives, and the number is growing year by year.
In 2018, suicide was blamed for the death of one of America’s most successful real estate auction firms, the co-founder and CEO of a popular gaming app, an American fashion designer, a Swiss insurance executive, and a well-known chef and author, among many others.
The high suicide rate is surprising to many, considering that successful entrepreneurs appear to have ideal lives with fewer financial problems and ready access to mental health care that is out of reach to many people. Although suicide is complex and difficult to understand, extreme stress, burnout, and depression are often to blame.
Entrepreneurs and Mental Illness: Statistics
Statistics on the rate of suicides among entrepreneurs are hard to come by, possibly because families prefer to keep the suicide of one of their own a closely guarded secret. Often, it seems that only the suicides of prominent, high-profile entrepreneurs tend to show up in the press.
However, depression and other mental illness among entrepreneurs aren’t uncommon. Forbes Magazine recently reported the results of a survey of 242 entrepreneurs conducted by researchers at the University of California San Francisco.
Thirty percent of those surveyed responded that they struggled with depression, compared to less than seven percent of the general population, according to estimates by the National Institute of Health (NIH).
The number may be even higher because depression isn’t always acknowledged when it shows up not as sadness, but as irritability, insomnia, or significant changes in appetite or weight.
Successful entrepreneurs are admired, envied and emulated. They are viewed as modern-day rebels who have kicked the 9 to 5 lifestyle to the curb; courageous individuals gutsy enough to take big risks for the potential of even bigger rewards.
However, what their admirers don’t realize is that with success comes long hours, chronic stress, and little time for family, friends, and fun. Self-care often suffers, and lack of sleep and regular exercise takes a toll.
For many, what begins as passion, energy and drive to succeed eventually becomes exhaustion, depression, and burnout.
Addiction and Bipolar Disorder are More Common
Astudy conducted by Mannuzza and colleagues determined that entrepreneurs are not only at higher risk of depression, they are substantially more likely to use drugs and alcohol, including addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin, to numb difficult emotions and psychological distress.
Entrepreneurs are also more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which was uncommon among the comparison participants. One likely explanation is that entrepreneurs who possess a number of successful personality traits are just as likely to struggle with one or more diagnosable mental health disorders.
Interestingly, entrepreneurs are only slightly more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety, reported by slightly more than one-quarter of all study participants.
Entrepreneurs and ADHD
The Mannuzza study indicates that ADHD affects approximately 29 percent of entrepreneurs, compared to only five percent of comparison participants. This statistic, backed up by numerous studies over the years, leads psychologists to believe that entrepreneurial success is directly linked to ADHD’s more positive traits, such as energy, impulsivity, resourcefulness, and creativity.
In other words, a person who feels frustrated with the status quo, or who has a low tolerance for boredom, is more likely to go into business for themselves. This is a mixed blessing for entrepreneurs who may also struggle with the downside of ADHD — distractibility, lack of focus, disorganization, and forgetfulness.
According to the Mannuzza study, entrepreneurs are more than twice as likely to commit suicide, while the occurrence of psychiatric hospitalization among entrepreneurs is about double.
It’s likely that the high rate of suicide and related hospitalizations are closely linked to chronic stress, isolation, burnout, and feelings of being trapped, or the presence of one or more disorders, such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, and ADHD.
The nature vs. nurture debate leads to the old chicken and egg argument about which came first. Are people who are prone to mental health disorders more likely to become entrepreneurs, or does entrepreneurship lead to the development of mental health issues? Researchers aren’t sure.
Entrepreneurs and Burnout
Unrelenting responsibilities and high work-related pressure can push entrepreneurs to burnout, a very real condition that goes far beyond the difficulties of typical stress.
Severe burnout results in feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Entrepreneurs who struggle with burnout often feel isolated and detached from other people, including their closest family members. A feeling of being trapped with a lack of viable alternatives may trigger anger, resentment, and loss of motivation.
Other symptoms of burnout include anxiety, exhaustion, headaches and frequent colds. People with burnout are frequently negative, cynical and quick to anger. They may turn to drugs and alcohol as a means of escape.
A Harvard Medical School Study reported in the Wall Street Journal notes that one-third of senior business leaders experience extreme burnout, while 96 percent said they feel somewhat burned out.
Help for Entrepreneurs with Depression and Burnout
All too often, suicide is viewed as the only way out for entrepreneurs struggling with extreme depression and burnout.
Counseling can be highly effective, especially when used proactively before suicide becomes the only option. Effective counseling can help entrepreneurs learn techniques to cope with stress and burnout before it turns into chronic, debilitating depression.
Sometimes it’s difficult for busy entrepreneurs to admit that psychological health is just as important as physical health, and many claim they’re too busy to engage in lengthy or time-consuming therapy.
Unfortunately, stigma continues to surround depression and mental illness, and many successful entrepreneurs still consider mental health issues to be signs of weakness.
Executive Treatment Centers
The good news is the growing trend of treatment centers that cater strictly to entrepreneurs, CEO’s and other business leaders, most of which place a high premium on privacy and confidentiality.
Treatment is typically holistic, addressing the health of the mind and body. Clients are screened for biochemical imbalances and vitamin deficiencies, which are corrected via nutritional improvements and supplementation of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.
While traditional counseling continues to be all-important, treatment for depression, stress and burnout may also utilize non-traditional modalities such as acupuncture, massage therapy, fitness training, tai chi or massage therapy.
Although the goal is to get to the root of the problem, anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications can be a tremendous help for many people. Treatment also addresses any problem with substance abuse or addiction.
Additionally, entrepreneurs are encouraged to put their smartphones away and to leave work behind at the end of the day. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s nearly impossible to disengage from work when constantly checking for messages or emails.
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