Mental health for entrepreneurs

Robin BenderRobin Bender, president of Waterloo-based Mega Health at Work Inc., has observed that a significant number of her clients are entrepreneurs struggling with depression and anxiety. We talked with Robin to understand what she’s observing, as well as to gather some helpful tips on prevention and coping strategies.

St. Paul’s GreenHouse: What factors put entrepreneurs at risk in terms of their mental health?

Robin Bender:  One in three people experience mental illness in their lifetime so this isn’t a problem exclusive to entrepreneurs. But there’s a lot of uncertainty, stress, failure, and rejection in being an entrepreneur. People don’t always take those factors into account when they begin to pursue their dreams. In the first years of a startup, there aren’t always funds to hire staff so entrepreneurs do tasks they don’t necessarily have skills for. It can be demoralizing and isolating. A key factor for entrepreneurs, though, is that they make a lot of sacrifices in order to be successful.

GH: What kinds of sacrifices?

RB: Many entrepreneurs survive on coffee and fast food rather than getting adequate sleep and good nutrition. Often relationships get sacrificed, too.

GH: Do some people thrive on this?

RB: People think mental illness doesn’t happen to highly successful or strong people but no one is immune. And few entrepreneurs have a plan to make sure they don’t fall down that hole.

GH:  Hole?

RB: I’ve talked to entrepreneurs who have spent months in bed, depressed. They question themselves, wonder whether they should even be doing what they are doing. It becomes a downward spiral because if you’re in bed and depressed, of course your business will suffer.

GH: Does that mean entrepreneurship isn’t for them?

RB:  It means they didn’t have a plan for self-care. We all know that it’s important to take care of ourselves but we don’t do it — and we end up doing worse and wondering why things aren’t working out. If we don’t consciously make choices, we end up going down unhealthy paths. Healthy eating is a simple example: if you were to run out to McDonalds, how productive and effective will you be the rest of the day? You’ll likely feel lethargic, nauseous, and maybe get down on yourself for eating that junk. Exercise is another example – people who exercise do better mentally. People can also consider what they do to cope with stress. Do they have a few beers or do they work out? Look at your choices and what they lead to – these things are connected to mental health.

GH:  Is it really as simple as that?

RB: The key is to be really aware of the impact of your choices and to recognize that you can always choose a new path. Self-care means making and following a plan. I recommend to people to make a chart with four columns (mental, physical, social, and spiritual) and to write out what they do in each category to take care of themselves, and how well it’s working. Then commit to doing something new in each area — and regularly check in to see what is working. If anyone understands the importance of being proactive, it should be entrepreneurs.

GH: What about people who are struggling?

RB: Don’t let things go on and on and get worse. Start with an honest look at how you’re really doing and where you want to be. Educate yourself (ideally before you need it!) on the different resources in the community. Some tools work for some people and not others, or work for a while and need to be re-evaluated. There are complementary therapies that really help some people, and professionals and organizations ready to help

GH: What kind of resources do you recommend?

RB: The Mental Health Commission of Canada has a very useful website as does the Mood Disorder Society of Canada. Locally, KW Counselling offers counselling by donation. The Waterloo Region Suicide Prevention Council and Lutherwood offers support. I teach a Mental Health First Aid course. People also find it helpful to talk with other entrepreneurs about their experiences with mental health and their self care plans.

GH: Thanks for your insights, Robin!

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