I was 17 years old when I had my first panic attack. The first thing I noticed was my hands going numb—a prickling-static sensation that radiated from my wrists to my fingers. Next: cold sweat, my heart racing irregularly, nausea, lightheadedness, the perception that my tongue didn’t fit in my mouth. It felt like my body was vibrating, as if it had been hijacked and was trying to shake the intruder out.
I was terrified, hyperventilating, unable to speak. As thoughts incoherently churned and crashed into each other, the overwhelming feeling was I was doomed and stuck, like my brain had caught on itself, like my gears had jammed.
I would soon grow familiar with this kind of experience. About a year later, after I had started suffering multiple panic attacks per day, I finally sought help. I connected with a team of mental health professionals who diagnosed me with panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
My diagnosis came as a relief. It meant I could seek the right treatment and, eventually, learn how to manage my disorders. It was the first step in my journey toward better mental health—a journey I’m still taking today.
My story is not unique. This is what so many mental health struggles feel like—the loss of control, the thoughts and sensations that overwhelm a person and disrupt their ability to live their life the way they want to. And I’m far from alone in terms of my diagnosis or its timing:
- Around half of all mental disorders begin before the age of 14; three-quarters by age 24. [Source]
- An estimated 50% of people in the United States will be diagnosed with a mental health illness or disorder at some point in their lives. [Source]
- Approximately 43.8 million Americans are currently experiencing mental illnesses. That’s roughly one out of every five adults in the United States. [Source]
These numbers include countless business owners. From anxiety to depression to eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and schizophrenia, all kinds of mental health struggles afflict people like you and me.
My issues did not evaporate when I ran my own business. If anything, I had to work harder than before to fulfill my mental health needs. It doesn’t take much reasoning to understand why.
The link between owning a business and experiencing mental health struggles
Are business owners at greater risk than others of experiencing mental health struggles?
Research seems to suggest the answer is, sadly, yes.
In a 2019 survey of hundreds of business owners in Canada, more than 60% of respondents reported they feel depressed at least once a week. Researchers at the University of California and Stanford University, meanwhile, have found that 72% of entrepreneurs are adversely affected by mental health conditions.
As therapist and executive coach Megan Bruneau writes in Forbes, “[t]oday we have ample research…to support that—despite its glamorization—entrepreneurship is negatively correlated with mental health.” Bruneau lists seven reasons why:
- Social isolation
- The pressure to manage impressions—that is, to appear strong, confident, and secure
- Barriers to mental health resources
- Predisposition to mental health challenges
- The fusion of one’s identity and self-worth with one’s company
In other words, the working conditions business owners are under tend to create or exacerbate mental health struggles. Compared to other people, business owners face elevated stress due to high demands on their time and energy, as well as the significant personal risk inherent in the job.
It’s not just a matter of ensuring your and your family’s livelihood. The success or failure of your business can shape your perception of yourself.
Together, these conditions can lead to problems such as chronic anxiety and depression, which often compound with other issues such as eating disorders and substance use disorders. As you might imagine, such issues disproportionately affect women and people of color. And the challenges multiply for non-neurotypical people, including people with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Another complicating factor? Many business owners don’t have the means to pay for mental health treatment, resources, and support.
Bloomberg reports that “many who are self-employed or running smaller businesses can’t afford comprehensive health insurance coverage.” Lack of access and financial hardships can worsen mental health struggles—and it can quickly become a vicious cycle: financial challenges beget personal challenges, which beget business challenges. As Geri Aglipay, a director with advocacy group Small Business Majority, told Bloomberg (emphasis added), “When you’re under financial stress, you’re under mental duress. It impacts the ability to think clearly and to think long-term for stability and sustainability for your business.”
On top of all that, there’s the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Business owners face outsized challenges here as well. When you run your own business, there’s enormous pressure to hide what you’re going through—to put on a happy face and fake it until you make it—and to hustle constantly.
I could write on and on, but plenty of others have already covered these topics with the rigor, courage, and compassion they deserve. If you’re interested in reading more, I recommend starting with Jessica Bruder’s in-depth, award-winning article in Inc., “The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship.”
Getting better: how to manage mental health struggles and overcome stigma
So, what can you do about all this? What steps can you take to better manage your own mental health challenges and offer support to others?
First, be honest with yourself. Acknowledge your humanity. There’s nothing shameful, weak, or morally wrong about experiencing a mental illness. If you’re struggling right now, it’s okay—you’re not alone—and you can get help. Embrace your vulnerability as the foundation of your power.
Next, get proactive about taking care of your mental health. Make it a habit, take it seriously, and when necessary, ask for help by talking to a mental health professional. We visit physicians when our bodies don’t feel well, so why should we be afraid of visiting therapists when our minds need help? You can find a directory of licensed professionals in your area here.
Finally, to make the world better for everyone living with mental illness—to create a happier, kinder, more equitable future for ourselves, our loved ones, our children, and generations to come—we need to end the stigma. Now.
The shame and fear surrounding mental illness only make life worse for those of us who experience it—not to mention our families, friends, employees, communities, and yes, even our customers and clients. The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) suggests the following:
- Talk openly about mental health.
- Educate yourself and others.
- Be conscious of language.
- Encourage equality between physical and mental illness.
- Show compassion for those with mental illness.
- Choose empowerment over shame.
- Be honest about treatment.
- Hold others (including members of the media) accountable for stigmatizing comments about and depictions of mental illness.
- Don’t harbor self-stigma.
In your own business, you can start making a change by…
- creating an environment where your team members feel safe to bring their truest selves to work,
- using inclusive language,
- leading by example,
- taking the time to actively listen to others.
You don’t have to figure this all out by yourself. Consider reaching out to an organization in your community that offers mental health resources. MentalHealth.gov has a great list here.
Remember: you’re not alone. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis or emotional distress, help is available.