Let’s get real about mental health and owning a business.

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 diagnosis came as a relief. “

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: 

  1. Stress 
  2. Uncertainty 
  3. Social isolation
  4. The pressure to manage impressions—that is, to appear strong, confident, and secure 
  5. Barriers to mental health resources 
  6. Predisposition to mental health challenges 
  7. 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). 

When you’re under financial stress, you’re under mental duress.

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

Whoever you are, and no matter what you’re experiencing, you deserve love, comfort, and joy. Give yourself what you need by practicing self-care. Here are a few simple ways to do it: 

Illustration of sneaker and weights; tex: Stay active
Illustration of paintbrush and painter's palette; tex: Do something creative you enjoy
Illustration of speech bubble-shaped hearts blossoming; text: Spend time with loved ones
Illustration of vegetables and water bottle; text: Nourish your body
Illustration of food and drinks; text: Appreciate the little things
Illustration of mobile device showing alarm icon in prohibition sign; text: Disconnect from screens
Illustration of sleeping crescent moon with three Zs; text: "Get plenty of rest"
Illustration of flower that looks like rotating fan; text: Volunteer

For more like this, make sure to check out Ruby’s Instagram!

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… 

  1. creating an environment where your team members feel safe to bring their truest selves to work, 
  2. using inclusive language, 
  3. leading by example, 
    and 
  4. 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.  

Additional reads you may find interesting...

View All
Content marketing and social media tips: side view of photo editor working in a creative office
Small Business Tips

Content marketing & social media: 4 easy tips for getting started

A single pine tree on a rocky summit
Small Business Tips

Meeting customer expectations during a holiday season like no other

Person at desk in front of computer waiting on phone
Receptionist Tips

Have trouble handling the emotional weight of phone calls? You’re not alone.

Choosing a business number: overhead view of faded yellow vintage telephone with notebook and numbers on monochrome background
Small Business Tips

What your phone number says about your business

How to find and analyze your website traffic: two people look at a computer in a bright office space
Small Business Tips

How to find and analyze your website traffic

Using virtual receptionists for part-time answering - Ruby

Using virtual receptionists for part-time answering

What is a conversation worth: illustration of a confused person with complicated calculations hovering above their head
Small Business Tips

What is a conversation really worth? We calculated the exact dollar amount.

Top 3 legal marketing strategies for 2022: man looks at laptop
Legal Practice Tips

Top 3 legal marketing strategies for 2022

24/7 live chat: a Ruby chat specialist and a potential new client use computers in split screen with a live chat window between them
About Ruby

How Ruby’s 24/7 live chat solution grows your business and saves you time

Why empathy matters for your business: person listening to another person in cafe with laptop, papers, and coffee
Small Business Tips

Why empathy matters for your business

SEO and branding: star-crossed lovers—an illustration of two people with crowns surrounded by flowers
Small Business Tips

SEO and branding: star-crossed lovers

Title card: Authentic small business marketing with Jamie Adams of Scorpion

Ruby partner feature: Authentic small business marketing with Scorpion

Using chat as a sales tool: hands using laptop
Small Business Tips

4 ways to leverage live chat as a sales tool

How to attract more law firm leads: smiling woman in professional attire talks on phone while using laptop
Legal Practice Tips

Treading water? Here’s how to attract more law firm leads.

Needs-based selling: woman using laptop in well-lit office next to large window.
Small Business Tips

Needs-based selling 101

Try Ruby Risk Free

Call to talk to a live virtual receptionist and hear why 10,000+ companies Ruby.

Call Ruby Sign Up
Sales Support

Already a Ruby customer?

Let’s get started.

Ready to turn more callers into customers?

Missed connections translate to lost revenue. With Ruby, you have a partner in gaining and retaining customers. Plus, we’re so confident you’ll love our service, we offer a 21 day money-back guarantee*.

*Ruby is delighted to offer a money-back guarantee to first time users of both our virtual receptionist service and our chat service. To cancel your service and obtain a full refund for the canceled service (less any multi-service discount), please notify us of the service you wish to cancel either within 21 days of your purchase of that service or before your usage exceeds 500 receptionist minutes/50 billable chats, as applicable, whichever occurs sooner. Some restrictions may apply.