Just as broken bones are a danger inherent in riding a motorbike, depression is one of the dangers inherent in trying to start a company.
Understanding this leads to two helpful realizations:
1. It's nothing to be ashamed of and should not be stigmatised
2. You would be wise to take precautions to protect against the danger (just like you would wear a helmet when riding).
The danger is particularly strong for solo founders, simply because of the lifestyle some have to live. Long periods of time spent on your own, slow progress toward your goals -- these are signals that the depression-triggering algorithms in your mind will latch onto.
Some things that may work to counter those signals:
* Socialise with friends, family or new people every day. If you can't socialise on a particular day, spend some time making plans with people to socialise in the near future.
* Be having sex, and regularly. Seriously, this is a very strong signal.
* Exercise a lot. Run, swim, work out -- even just walk around the neighbourhood.
* Plan your work to have near-term achievable milestones.
* Eat healthily and avoid alcohol. A weak immune system leads to frequent illness, which leads to slower progress.
I live by these five rules and agree, but I agree succinctly, that is with the letter of what you wrote: these things work to counter the signals, they do not necessarily work to remove depression.
As I understand it, depression can be caused by external issues (a loved one dying, losing a job) or internal issues (chemical imbalances). Again, as I understand it this list of ways to counter can help run-of-the-mill ennui, but it is not going to forestall the abyss for someone suffering from real depression.
There is no real evidence for the chemical imbalance theory of depression, in fact the meme about chemical imbalance was begun by pharmacuetical companies to explain how SSRI's work. That, and the failure of many of the new reuptake inhibitors, suggests that depression is not caused by chemical imbalances.
When someone starts out on antidepressants, their neurotransmitter  levels return to normal almost immediately. However, patients usually only begin to see improvements 2 - 4 weeks later. This wouldn't be the case if depression was simply due to lowered neurotransmitter levels.
However, all is not lost. A new theory suggests that patients have a lowered rate of neurogenesis (creation of new brain cells) and that serotonin is crucial in kick starting the process.
 Patients usually have lowered levels of Serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.
To say that depression is a chemical imbalance is to over-simplify the cause and treatment.
People hearing the chemical imbalance hypothesis may think that there's no effective evidence based therapy available, or that they will need meds for the rest of their life, or that they are going to relapse for the rest of their life.
That's not true. There are effective, evidence based, talking therapies. The most well known (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) is simple to understand, easy to apply, and can be given by therapists or can be self-applied through websites (the Australian "Mood Gym" is one) or books ("mind over matter" is a good example).
A person given just meds will be more likely to relapse than someone given meds and CBT.
> I cannot speak on that and recommend professional help.
Yes, professional help is important. In the UK front line treatment for mild to moderate depression is not medication, but is CBT. And CBT should be used for other illnesses too.
My emphasis on things like CBT is because they have been shown to work; not because I don't think that depression is a "real illness'. See, for example, the use of CBT to treat pain suffered by cancer patients.
I don't care enough about your ridiculous statement to go dig up evidence, but I care enough to relate my own anecdote: I have chemically induced depression in myself, as a side effect of a drug. As soon as I went off the drug, the depression went away.
I am a depression patient. It is certainly true that various substances can induce depression. I do not believe that the original poster was implying that depression is without very real biological causes; merely that these causes are more nuanced than the phrase "chemical imbalance" implies. Here is some food for thought.
SSRIs, or serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants in the United States due to their relative safety and efficacy. It is widely thought that these drugs achieve effectiveness through their ability to increase serotonin levels in the brain. Now, here comes the mystery: while serotonin levels rise almost immediately following introduction of the drug, the antidepressant effects do not become apparent until several weeks of treatment have passed. Why is that? No one knows for sure, but a few interesting theories have emerged.
The most interesting theory, in my opinion, involves hippocampal neurogenesis and BDNF levels. A few recent studies have shown that one thing that the SSRIs share in common is that they all promote neurogenesis in the hippocampus. A further study showed that the antidepressant effects of SSRIs on behavior in rats exposed to artificially induced stressors could be completely nullified by slightly irradiating the hippocampus, thus negating the growth of new neurons promoted by the SSRIs. The antidepressant effect was gone even though serotonin levels remained elevated.
This conclusion provided compelling but not conclusive evidence that neurogenesis is involved in antidepressant effectiveness. Yet even here, the picture was not altogether clear: while patients diagnosed with clinical depression generally show less hippocampal neurogenesis than controls, it is not at all clear whether this deficit is a cause or effect of clinical depression. Is it possible that depression, once established, can cause physical changes in brain structure? If so, that might explain why cognitive behavioral therapy in conjunction with antidepressant medication is a more effective depression treatment than either of the two alone.
Interestingly enough, strenuous aerobic exercise is known both to be an effective treatment for mild to moderate forms of depression as well as a promoter of hippocampal neurogenesis. An increasing number of psychiatrists are in fact prescribing exercise regimens as treatment for some forms of depression because it seems to work.
The bottom line is: there's a lot we don't know about depression, and while we have effective treatments, the reality is that the causes of depression simply cannot be adequately summed up as a "chemical imbalance." Drugs are appropriate for some patients and inappropriate for others. I encourage anyone interested in the subject to do some reading, as the brain is (at least, to a layman like me) the most fascinating information processing system ever.
While we don't know the exact causes, and there are complex factors in play, it is most certainly a chemical imbalance. Imagine you could take a perfect chemical "snapshot" of the brain/body when it's in a normal mood and again in depressed state. Do you seriously think there would be no difference chemically?
I've take SSRIs off & on for the last 15 years. I'm currently on them after experiencing suicidal depression this summer. (I suspect it was partially induced by taking Chantix.)
Exercise can help, but in my case it doesn't make much difference. When my latest onset hit I was (and still am) in the best shape of my life and maintaining 10% body fat. I've been doing Crossfit for the last 15 months. Very strenuous.
"Do you seriously think there would be no difference chemically?"
No, I do not think that. In fact, I stated quite clearly that depression causes measurable changes in brain morphology and function. My entire argument was to support the assertion that the phrase "chemical imbalance" is merely an insufficient label for a complex psychological and biological phenomenon.
in fact the meme about chemical imbalance was begun by pharmacuetical companies to explain how SSRI's work
Just as a gut-check here, are you saying that the pharma companies actually came up with a drug, passed it through human trials and everything, and then came up with the reason for its existence? I'm skeptical.
Excellent info Benl. Having been on the startup ropes many times, your above points are key. I find that exercise has been a real boost to my mental health and allowing me new clarity of focus to problems.
Startups are very, very hard, the percentage of success is very small. The media and techcrunch make it look so easy...but there are many that do not make it any where close to the big liquidity. Mix in questionable investors, that are motivated by greed, salaries that need to be paid and a girlfriend that needs to get....
I find that this is exactly true. Caffeine makes me feel worse in the medium term and exacerbates stressful situations. Having said that, it sometimes feels like a necessary evil to keep operating when sleep deprived :(
There's a large body of solid research showing striking benefits from regular exercise in helping avoid and overcome mental illness, as well as physical illness.
Even if you feel like you don't have the time or conditioning to do anything else, try going outside and taking a walk for fifteen minutes, and do at least this much every day, then gradually incorporate longer periods of exercise and other types of exercise on some days. The mental and physical health benefits are worth more than that much time invested.
Edit to add: Also, no matter what you're working on, this is also a great way to clear your mind, get away from the daily routine, and let your most important thoughts float up to the surface, and/or give your thoughts a chance to float freely enough to come together in new ways.
Absolutely! I'm a recovering drug addict (3 years sober) and I have found the closest thing to the heaven I once experienced on heroin is the state of mind regular exercise puts you in. You're in control, you feel more energetic, and on and on. It's a wonderful tool and it isn't used as often as its prescribed!
I know that hipsters and other socially capable people have invaded the technology industry in the last few years, but it should be noted that an entreaty to most technologists to "just have more sex" is extremely unhelpful. Would you tell a homeless person to "just make more money"?
As a matter of fact, telling this to someone whose depression has a large social disconnect component to it may trigger further feelings of inadequacy via the mental model of "I'm the only one who seems to be incapable of doing what is obviously so easy to this person, and everybody else."
It's a pity the replies to your insightful comment are focusing purely on your analogy.
While I'm sure these 5 points were made with good intentions, I find them to really miss the point: somebody who is most susceptible to severe depression (of the sort that leads to suicide) is NOT going to be in a position to have sex regularly, to have the motivation to exercise, quite possibly won't have anybody close to them (or will have dysfunctional thoughts about spending time with friends), etc. For somebody who feels they are inadequate and life is hopeless, telling them to do things that seem impossible (because of their depressive mood) will just frustrate them more and 'prove' they are inadequate and life is hopeless, as you say (I've been there, been depressed by those thoughts so I recognize them well).
Even for people susceptible to mild and moderate depressions, these points are risky advice. While these activities are great in principle for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, people must execute them with the correct sense of awareness. Example: encouraging socialising every day can be some of the worst advice you can give somebody who is suffering from depression induced by feelings of low self-esteem brought on by a love/approval addiction. All you do in that case is encourage them to develop social dependence and an avoidance strategy for being alone. People with such issues need to spend time carefully learning to develop self-love and self-esteem, and that requires spending significant amounts of time consciously alone and with others, identifying and analysing their dysfunctional thoughts of being alone/being with others to develop more rational responses.
Same thing applies to telling somebody to have sex regularly: if they are suffering from a love/approval addiction, they could just be feeding this without addressing it. The second their partner leaves them - kaboom. Someone with an achievement addiction (very likely in the context we're discussing) may be similarly setting themselves up unwittingly if they focus too much on goal setting (yes, smaller goals make it less likely to trigger this since smaller goals are more likely to be achieved, but the point is people can become obsessive regardless of the size of the goal.)
Ultimately, AWARENESS is the biggest thing people in our industry can use as a precaution. Learn about depression and how to spot the warning signs, then seek further help if required (self-help, personal therapy, medication or some combination). Curiously, every person in the industry whom I've suggested e.g. David Burns' "Feeling Good" to has been super interested (because they identify with the mood issues and dysfunctional thinking)... until they discover the book is about "depression". This is most unfortunate (but I made the same mistake; fortunately when dysthymia turned into severe depression for me I'd at least read the first chapter of the book a year prior and so could recognize the symptoms).
The problem is that somebody who is depressed doesn't think rationally - in fact, in the vast majority of the cases this dysfunctional thinking is precisely WHY they are depressed to begin with. They WILL see the advice in the negative way, not the positive way. Furthermore, in cases of severe depression or stress, a diminished sex drive is quite normal so sex isn't even an option - further fueling the feelings of inadequacies mentioned.
Would you tell a homeless person to "just make more money"?
Most homeless people are just plain crazy (e.g. schizophrenic or drug addict) and are unlikely to accept your advice.
However, I would tell a typical non-crazy poor person to work harder  and develop moneymaking skills. Similarly, I'd tell a person who isn't getting laid to work harder at getting laid, and also to develop some getting-laid skills (I'd probably point him at pickup artist literature).
I've found that the biggest difference between men who get laid and men who don't is that the former category ask a lot more women to sleep with them.
 Most poor people don't work at all and many of those that do work only part time.
This has to be some of the worst advice I've read, work harder and develop money making skills. If only it were so easy given that they are already short on resources (not only money but time) and may be responsible for more than just themselves.
And your comment about homeless is equally ridiculous.
"The recession will force 1.5 million more people into homelessness over the next two years, according to estimates by The National Alliance to End Homelessness. In a 2008 report, the U.S. Conference of Mayors cited a major increase in the number of homeless in 19 out of the 25 cities surveyed. On average, cities reported a 12 percent increase of homelessness since 2007."
Are those people suddenly crazy? Maybe they should just work harder. Right?
Your whole comment speaks to never having actually met or worked with anyone who was really struggling financially. There isn't an easy solution to solve this issue, this myth of just working harder is bullshit. Some of those people are the people doing the jobs nobody else would dream of doing but they work really fucking hard at it and get next to nothing in return. Perhaps even working two of those jobs. Now throw in a kid or two that they are responsible for, just working harder solves nothing.
It seems the causation is not (drunk OR crazy) => homeless but more homeless => (drunk OR crazy). The fundamental attribution error says that to explain a behavior, we frequently overlook situational explanations (upbringing, environment) to favor dispositional explanations(character, identity) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error. Same reason why immigrants cause problems, it's not because of them being immigrants but of them living in hard conditions.
My comment was to be read in the context of the discussion, as in, it's not as simple as to tell to homeless people to go "develop their moneymaking skills" and it's not simple because of a myriad of factors, not because they're crazy and drunk (consequence of their situation).
I don't have direct evidence of the causality other than the comment I've posted above.
I think what's happening is that all the positive spin about why you should make a startup are just drowning out the negatives, and this makes sense. I work for a company that makes over 100 million a year and one of the founders told me that if he knew how much work starting the company would be, he wouldn't have done it. There is a part of being an entrepreneur that is about ignoring the negatives. It's a very Han Solo, "Never tell me the odds" kind of thing.
I spent the first 3 years post college using all my free time in a new city trying to bootstrap my startup by myself at home in front of a computer almost every night and weekend after my day job. Luckily I met my now wife along the way which helped keep me motivated and gave me someone to talk to. I didn't really feel I had time to make any other friends. My business succeeded and survived, but depression was probably the biggest obstacle. It will absolutely crush your motivation, and when you get unmotivated, you see the project stagnate which pushes you even deeper into a lack of motivation, burnout, and depression. I felt I was really all alone in it. My now wife even stopped being supportive after a couple years of no profits. She's not really someone who has the same passion for entrepreneurship, so she just saw me spending all my time on something that had gone nowhere, getting depressed, having no social life. She was right to be concerned. This probably has something to do with why co-founders are recommended. If someone would have been on the journey along with me it would have made it so much easier, but I went it alone because at the start I didn't feel I had enough skills to offer anyone legitimate as a co-founder, and at the same time, I didn't want to partner up with a friend who wasn't really interested in sticking it out through years of after-work bootstrapping and no profits while we learned.
Right now I'm embarking on a new startup, but I'm doing many things differently. It's important to understand yourself. The last 2 years I've worked hard at making close friends in the area where I live. I need to keep those friendships healthy even if it means less time working on the startup. Secondly, I work out at least twice a week. Again, both of these take away from my startup since I still have a day job too, but they are absolutely crucial and I've come to realize that 4 hours of healthy motivated time is better than 16 of depressed unmotivated time.
I have been there, several times now. Each time I learn a little more and each time I come away more effective. I've found that when it gets really tight and overwhelming by simply not giving up you begin to notice the things that are critically important and that need to get done and the things that are just nice to have.
In the end when you start noticing these things and get the important tasks done and let the non-important ones slide it feels pretty good.
I still struggle with #2 though. It often feels like no one else I know ever feels that same guilt. The only solution I've come up with so far is if I'm doing something that isn't work then it needs to feel like I'm not wasting time. For some reason I don't really understand yet playing golf doesn't feel like I'm wasting time. Maybe because it's a solo sport and for me it's competitive? I don't know. It helps though.
Edit: To acknowledge the spirit of this thread I am not suggesting a depressed person push through and use the stress to their advantage. This is advice for someone who is not depressed. I do know what depression is like, and if you're depressed and experiencing the above then I don't think it's possible to make it through. Acknowledge your mental state (Very hard to do, talk with other people, seek help) and come back later.
Your comment identifies that my above comments aren't really depression -- more of a dissapointing lull, and should not be confused with a real clinical level of depression which I'm not sure I've ever experienced.
I can only speak from my own experience. Taking that into account from the points you identified that is not depression, rather a state of being knocked down and overwhelmed. Something that in my experience you can push through and learn from.
Depression is different. The best way I can explain it is if you've ever experienced the kind of euphoria associated with a deep connection with someone else. Not just lust but a deep connection or love - depression is the exact opposite of that and just as powerful.
Unlike being in love, you may not know if you're actually depressed or just experiencing what I have taken your points to be as a state of being knocked down.
I'll admit I'm never a huge fan of other founders asking me how my startup is going as a conversation starter. There are often three scenarios:
1.) Nothing new or exciting has happened since last time, in which case I feel pretty crappy.
2.) Something cool has happened, but I don't feel particularly boastful nor do I want to get into a long discussion of why that thing is cool.
3.) Something very amazing has happened, but I'm actually not allowed to talk about it.
I do notice when I return the question, I almost always hear the answer this article suggests ("awesome, best month ever, crushing it"). I guess that's why people always gave me funny looks when I used to give an honest assessment.
Now I just always answer, "Good good, we're pretty close to (some lofty feature or pseudo-pivot that is months away)". It's a convenient way to change the subject. Keep in mind this primarily applies to casual meetups with people I see regularly every 1-3 months but don't consider close friends.
2) To combat this, I make sure my partner shows off his stuff to me all the time, and vice versa. Sometimes just showing someone who understands that something is cool and getting just some truthful criticism is really encouraging. If my partner builds something cool, even if I can figure it out... "show me".
1) If nothing exciting happens, I try to talk about something good happening in their life, try to keep focused on the happy part of your life vs the frustrating/hard part to keep spirits up.
3) You can always talk about it with your partner. Or. You can talk about it, with friends. Its good to have a friend who is willing to sit there and listen even if they don't fully get it and you know they won't backstab you.
So, being pedantic, is Diaspora even a startup? I've thought of it more as an open source project. And even if we're willing to label it a startup, why jump to the conclusion that doing a startup was the trigger? Couldn't it just as easily be a breakup, family problems, various emotional issues, etcetera? Why do we assume that the incidence of depression and suicide is higher among founders than non-founders?
I don't mean to trivialize the interplay, often strong, between emotions and work, but we're making a lot of assumptions here that as far as I'm aware are unfounded.
1. Life as a founder is often incredibly stressful.
2. Prolonged periods of stress exacerbate/cause mental illness.
If you agree with both of those statements, the logical conclusion is that incidence of mental health related problems is likely higher among founders than the general population. At any rate, talking about these issues is of some value regardless.
I agree with those statements but the incidence of mental health problems isn't necessarily higher among founders because it. Being a founder (a real founder, not just an idea man with no execution) takes a special kind of person. These people seem to be able to handle the lifestyle and the stresses involved better than the general population. I wouldn't say they're immune but I'd say their ability to execute on a great idea and even be marginally successful at it puts them a cut above the rest.
So maybe we can safely say that founders are more likely to be at risk while at the same time saying that they don't succumb to depression in as high of numbers as other groups would despite that risk. I'd add to that lime of thought by saying depression is still far more common than we realize as it just isn't talked about so it doesn't show up on our radar.
It seems like the bigger problem may be denial. I don't think depression is unique to entrepreneurs. Just living in NYC brings an exceptional set of challenges for someone to overcome (The article tells stories from NYC). For start-ups though, constantly having to put on a pretty face for everyone (employees, investors, clients, customers, friends and family) and deny the fact that you're a total mess on the inside technology-wise, business-wise and personally is the root of the problem. It creates incredible pressure, and if you can't live up to all the beauty you say you have, it makes you feel sad, angry, frustrated, and lost. Throw in not eating properly, not exercising, and not getting enough sleep and you have a recipe for depression. If we could just talk about how messed up everything is, we might find that we aren't the only ones and feel better about it. I'm a founder in NYC, so if anyone wants to talk, hit me up!
"Depression is a taboo subject in the startup scene, despite being very common. Be aware that it's common, don't be surprised when it hits you, and do something about it (and be sympathetic to those other founders who are depressed)."
There is certainly a chest-thumping habit in the startup world. 90% of the startups you speak to in any meetup are probably doing dismally, but you'll almost never hear them say anything negative until they suddenly fold and start doing something else.
"How's it going?"
"Great! Our user base is growing, and they love the product, and blah blah blah"
6 months later
"Oh, you're doing something else?"
"Yeah, it worked well, but it wasn't successful enough." (or, if they're more honest, "Our users loved us but we were making about $100 a month of turnover")
Bob has 6 months of hard time with depression, but gets treatment and now feels recovered. Bob goes to a job interview.
Does Bob disclose the mental illness that he suffered? Does he keep it a secret? When does he disclose it, at the interview, or after they offer a job, or after he accepts the job?
How many employers would give Bob the job knowing that he's just had mental illness? How many would blatantly discriminate? How many would sub-consciously discriminate?
In the UK a law had to be made to prevent employers from discriminating against people with disabilities, especially mental illness. And then people had to stop disclosing at interview, but disclosing after the job offer and then talking about "reasonable adjustments". ("I want the job; I feel recovered; I need half a day once every month to see a doctor but this will be tapered off.")
Every startup networking event I've been to has been like a high school pep rally. If you aren't the social type (with many close friends), going against that grain is hard. That makes you feel left out and separate. that allows depression to creep in.
I do think it is very real thing. Of course it's not 100% of founders, but the real numbers are hard to know behind the cheerleading.
The article is actually pretty good. Of course, it's a bunch of anecdotes rather than data, but there are many young founders who struggle with depression, and none of them want to admit it publicly for sake of scaring away VCs.
Honestly, the hardest thing about running a company is that you have to be a cynical bastard and a rosy-cheeked optimist at the same time. Juggling those two paradigms of viewing the world is harder than anything else I've ever done.
Improving your product almost requires cynicism, since you have to view what isn't good enough; but you have to be able to stay optimistic and know you're going to get "there" someday. Otherwise, you get depressed and feel massively alone.
Talking about mental health problems is important. Some of them commonly start around the early twenties; stress can be a trigger; having "rainy day action plans" can be immensely helpful making any times of illness much less disruptive to the sufferer.
Knowledge helps people around the person too -- knowing that pulling someone aside and just talking to them about their feelings is a good, helpful, thing could save lives. Knowing that this person has a disorder that makes them incredibly effective for a few months but that comes with a risk of "crashing" allows them to put support in and encourage taking of meds or contct with professionals.
In the UK employers are not allowed to discriminate against people with mental health problems, so knowledge is again really useful.
 "Stress" means slightly different things to different people. I tend to use it for unhealthy harmful stress, and "pressure" for the stuff that people enjoy and thrive on. Pressure for one person could be stress for another.
Is this particularly endemic to start-up culture? University was also extremely demanding and brought many people to their knees. And while on the one hand, you may work harder than you ever had in your life, you are working for yourself, your own goals. There is a liberation in that (I can certainly speak for myself - to be reminded that every drop of effort I'm putting in is for my own forward movement keeps it going).
I hope those who are young and just learning how hard they can push themselves have a mentor. I owe mine a million thanks a thousand times over.
On the one hand, no. Depression is very common and strikes everywhere.
On the other hand, startup culture does make it unusually difficult to cope with depression. There's a cult of very long hours and complete focus on work, which is a recipe for burnout. Most startups need every employee to be a marketing face of the company – which generally involves a constant projection of optimism and energy, and which in the era of Twitter can require you to keep your game face on 24/7.
Speaking of Twitter: Software startups are the first and most energetic adopters of the internet, the social structure of the internet is not (yet?) well designed – it is still early in its history – and frankly the internet is not an emotionally healthy environment. It's a fishbowl the size of the planet. There are all kinds of things that none of us are comfortable discussing in public, mental health is right there on the top of that list (in American culture, at any rate), and there is nothing more public than the internet.
University is a far less scary environment. There's rituals and schedules. There is, believe it or not, less time pressure. There are lots of peers who are easy to interact with in person. There's restaurants and bars and student unions and clubs and sports and hobbies. There's professional counseling. There's bailout options (you can drop classes, petition for pass/fail status, take leaves of absence). Most important of all, there's less of the culture of relentless optimism. People expect students to get into funks now and then. Everyone knows that sophomores spend hours having crazy philosophical discussions at three in the morning. The Ph.D. is practically basic training in depression-management techniques. Everyone knows that grad students spend evenings sitting around sipping microbrews and moaning about their advisers; back at Cornell they had a T-shirt: DON'T ASK ME ABOUT MY THESIS.
So we should be teaching those new to this, that it's ok to stop and say 'this is hard, i need perspective'. This is not helped by the cult of the founder that is lauded: the strong-willed and headstrong leader who has 100% confidence in her abilities.
You have no idea how much I wish I had a mentor. And I think there's probably a bunch of other people out there who feel the same, even if they're not willing to admit it. It's very lonely and terrifying entering this demanding world with no guidance whatsoever.
Reach out to someone you trust and ask for an introduction. Imagine: in a year, with some advice, you'll be so much further along than having to try and figure everything out for yourself. A mentor can just be someone you trust who will listen and give perspective as you go along, it doesn't have to be a business mogul, but ideally someone who has had to make tough decisions in their career somehow and has something to offer.
yes, this is endemic to startup culture and it is different from university - at universities, you are part of a collective group trying to graduate. in a startup, you are (for the most part) alone with your cofounder. it's a much more individualistic type of pursuit, and this brings extra stress.
One thing that exacerbates my startup depression (yep, I've got it too) is the fiscal pressure of being a founder - even if I stick with founding startups for many years, and do so many times, the odds are that I'll end up with significantly less wealth than if I just got a "real job".
The #1 reason for this is that investors require that founders "stay hungry" (aka get paid less than market compensation). Couple that with the periods of getting paid nothing (before you raised money, and when you are in-between startups) and the very low likelihood of a significant exit (thus all those founders shares are usually worth $0) and the result is one more thing to be depressed about; the fact that you are working your ass off, and being mostly miserable, without getting paid for it.
I know nothing about depression and even less about the "startup community", but I still think that this might be a good thread to throw in some of my thoughts, for what they're worth:
First, a little background...
In March, 2008, I attended my first Startup School. Even though I had been programming for many years, it was my first in-person exposure to the "startup community". It was incredible! For the first time in my life, I felt like I was immersed into the group of people with whom I belong. (The closest feeling I had before that was here at Hacker News.) Two great days talking about passionate things with like minded people! Then I got on the plane home and sat with 2 girls reading "People Magazine". All I could think was, "Welcome back to the real world."
Fast forward to today...
Sorry to say, I'm having trouble distinguishing our "community" from the "community" of those 2 girls. Sure, they were probably interested in celebrities while we're interested in technology & business, but the similarities are still striking: We're both often caught up in the latest fads, the "cool" stuff, what the fanboys are interested in, who got funded, who met with whom, who knows whom, where everyone's hanging out, etc., etc., etc. There are days when I come to Hacker News and have trouble finding a single reference to the most important thing: our customers.
I became interested in building digital things because it was such an incredibly cool way to provide for others. I still feel that way.
Whenever I start thinking about the "startup community" and all the details we mistake for issues, it's no wonder people get depressed. Sometimes we just lose our way.
But whenever I start thinking about my customers, what they need, why they need it, and how cool it is to help them get it, it's almost impossible to get depressed.
If you think you're getting depressed because of all the distracting details, find someone who needs something, focus on them instead of yourself, and build something.
Just a thought from an unqualified observer too busy and having too much fun to get depressed.
Suicidal depression rarely has anything to do with how much fun you're having. It's an illness. You can't pushup your way out of cancer, jog your way out of MS, and you can't fun your way out of real depression.
You make several good points, but let's not trivialize mental illness. I doubt (a lot) that it's something endemic or "taboo" among startups, but any time we can make any group of people more aware of the signs and symptoms of clinical depression, let's do that.
(Lost several friends, one of them close, to suicide).
The worst part of depression is a sortof profound loneliness. This is the feeling that ends up leading a lot of people towards suicide. There's nobody that "gets" them, and nobody that they can talk to about what they're feeling. They feel isolated from their friends and family, and this feeling is exaggerated by people who don't understand that they are suffering from a neurochecmial/neurophysiological deficiency; not from something that they can just "push through".
Imagine telling somebody with cancer that they just have to wake up one day and decide they don't have cancer anymore.
What makes all of this worse is the feeling that what you're going through is somehow invalid. Not only are you suffering from the worst kind of emotional pain and loneliness imaginable, but you're being told that you're a fool for it, and that you're a failure or a weakling for not being able to snap out of it.
You know...a lot of my family members are pilots. Part of the training that they go through, something that seems to be constantly drilled into them, is to watch out for hypoxia. This is what happens when you're flying too high without supplemental oxygen, and your body starts malfunctioning. You sound like you're drunk. (This is what hypoxia sounds like, it's terrifying: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_IqWal_EmBg).
This is recognized as a dangerous part of the job, something to monitor yourself for.
I think that hackers need to keep in mind that depression is kindof our hypoxia. It can sneak up on us, and it can kill us if we don't address it.
And there is nothing wrong or weak about being depressed, just like there is nothing wrong or weak about being hypoxic.
As far as I know, the standard treatment for depression is medication to provide a short term fix (thereby convincing the patient that the therapist can help) and cognitive behavioral therapy as a long term fix.
As I understand it, CBT is basically teaching the depressed person how to "fun" (or stress manage/expectation manage) their way out of depression.
In any case, I believe the distinction between "illness" and "not an illness" is usually not very important - it's usually an attempt to appeal to medical authorities rather than address fundamentally social and ethical issues.
There is no "standard" treatment for depression as a whole.
There are different types of depression, with different treatments. I know one person who will probably be on medication for her whole life (bipolar), another who needed medication for about a year and found therapy to be a waste of time (postpartum), and some for whom therapy was the primary treatment.
I'm sorry but I take issue with your tone. I've been on around 4 antidepressants since reaching adulthood and I've dome (I'm still somewhat still doing) CBT. I'm fine now without further treatment but while I was being treated I must say that the pills work. Some more than others. Some people need them forever and some don't. The point of taking them is to get you motivated and just functional enough to start working out the cause. In my case they gave me just enough energy to get slightly involved in a few things. Those things then snowballed to the point where I didn't need the pills and had other outlets. I still am prone to be depressed far easier and more often than most but the treatment got me to a point where I have the tools lift myself out of it each time despite the fact that depression really is totally crippling and makes you believe there is no solution.
I still go to CBT though not often just because I really enjoy it and I get a lot out of it. Even the therapist agrees I'd be fine without it but it makes me happy so I go once or twice a month.
Depression is an illness just like addiction or diabetes. I mention addiction because that's another one people like to write off as a moral failing or something that just isn't a real illness.
I could be misunderstanding your point but my experience tells me you're wrong on this.
I'm sorry you dislike my tone. But do you disagree with any of the factual claims I made? If so, which one?
From your comment, it sounds as if pills motivated you to try CBT, and then you lifted yourself out of it (via fun or other methods). I.e., you underwent the exact process I described - pills make you happier short term, therapist taught you to solve your own problems long term.
I'm also glad that you've also discovered CBT is an enjoyable hobby.
Depression is an illness just like addiction or diabetes. I mention addiction because that's another one people like to write off as a moral failing or something that just isn't a real illness.
Why do you feel that being an illness and being a moral failing are mutually exclusive?
Try reading the lesswrong link I posted. The gist of it is that the label "disease" describes a collection of heterogeneous objects, and drawing implications by analogy to some objects in the collection (e.g. cancer) can give misleading results when applied to other objects in the collection (e.g., drug addiction).
Similarly, this claim is an example of the same logical fallacy: "A penguin is a bird, just like a pigeon, therefore it can fly."
Maybe you don't mean it, but I also hear a contemptuous tone when you describe CBT as "funning" your way out of depression, or when you call Bill's CBT an enjoyable hobby.
(CBT is an enjoyable hobby, I still get mileage out of rereading Seligman's Learned Optimism (which is CBT based). But, being condescending and being factually accurate are not mutually exclusive either.)
"As I understand it, CBT is basically teaching the depressed person how to "fun" (or stress manage/expectation manage) their way out of depression."
Most people would not describe "stress management" or "expectation management" as "fun"
CBT is not about fun. It often involves journaling (challenging irrationally negative thoughts). It's also certainly not positive thinking. Far from it. It's focused, rational, balanced thinking. Then again, on HN maybe careful, logical thinking is considered fun.
On a lighter note, for some people (not me), CBT is fun. But it's a different kind of CBT. I have a hard time not laughing when a psychologist says she's a practitioner of CBT. (If you're unfamiliar with what I am talking about Google CBT. Prepare to see some seriously NSFW cringeworthy images).
The thing I really didn't like was how you used the word "fun" as if to minimize the seriousness of the problem. In fact, it came off to me as if you were minimizing the seriousness of depression in general. I could have just taken it that way without you meaning it like that.
Your comment about pills also came off as if to say its not a valid solution. Like maybe pills are somehow for the weak or lazy.
Honestly, I just really detected a lot of snark in that comment and in this one and I don't know why. You just called my participation in CBT "an enjoyable hobby" like a backhanded compliment. I wouldn't call it a hobby at all.
Maybe if you want to get technical and argue semantics a moral failing and disease may not be mutually exclusive. But we're talking about the real world. As it applies to depression and addiction, disease and moral failing are mutually exclusive. People are looked down upon and carry a stigma because so many people want to call it a moral failing. They say "just snap out of it" for depression and they call addicts weak people when the reality is so far from being so black and white.
Everyone can pull out studies to discredit the other guy's study that he pulled out. Let's be real when we talk about this stuff and not hide behind studies. Researchers disagree all the time so the best we can do is use our own experience, best judgement, and widely accepted truths to argue our points.
At the end of the day I took less issue with your facts than your ton. It just sounded demeaning and like you were minimizing the seriousness of this stuff. Plus there was a bit of snark detected. I don't think I was the only one either. That's all, this isn't a personal attack, man. Correct me if I'm wrong.
You said you "...still go to CBT...just because I really enjoy it...Even the therapist agrees I'd be fine without it...". If you don't call such an activity a hobby, what would you call it?
Maybe if you want to get technical and argue semantics a moral failing and disease may not be mutually exclusive. But we're talking about the real world. As it applies to depression and addiction, disease and moral failing are mutually exclusive.
If you wish to argue that they are not "moral failings", then make such an argument. Define your morality explain why addiction to drugs does not meet your criteria for immorality.
For example, I'd argue thusly: "I believe an action is only immoral if it harms another person against their will. Drug addiction/depression does not do this, hence the choice to use and become addicted to drugs is not a moral failing."
Don't try to confuse people with logically invalid argument such as "it's an illness, not a moral failing". That's as logically invalid as arguing "penguins are birds, and therefore can fly."
I'm not really arguing. Seems like someone is looking to start a fight. I saw a comment that seemed to belittle the depressed and minimize the seriousness of the problem as well as a veiled mockery of CBT.
I don't really know what you mean by moral failing. To morally failyou have to start doing something that is immoral, like killing kitten or something
Just out of curiosity (I don't really know what the answer is because I don't have depression), but do you think it's impossible for a person to become depressed due to being weak or having a weak character?
Could for example being a loser make your life difficult and lead to depression?
Now I understand "loser" is kind of a meaningless term, but I'm just using it as an illustrative example.
Say for a particular set of reasons (having to due with your character/personality) everyone around you always teases you. Couldn't that lead to depression; and if you were that kind of person, wouldn't addressing what makes you a "loser" be the correct way ultimately to deal with your depression.
Or is depression never caused by problems with one's own personality/character?
Your point about being a loser is exactly the kind of thing that hurts people more than helps them. Don't get me wrong, I get your point and the way you put it really makes sense. Yes, I'm sure failing can lead to depression and I have no doubt that it happens. But consider this.
Very often the very thing that creates a "loser" is not a personal failing but actually a symptom of depression. People will fly off the handle on me for not citing a study but it's the best I've got right now. I'll take my own case. From birth I was as happy and normal as anyone. Smart as anything, lots of success, and so on. Suddenly depression comes out of nowhere. The symptoms of depression brought me to a point where I could no longer work, study, or do anything really. It also led me to self medicate and become an addict. That's the point where my situation fed my depression and made it worse much like you describe.
Stories like this are very common from the depressed. Everyone fails at some point but that failure doesn't always lead to depression. People just pick up the pieces and move on.
So while what you say could likely be true for some, it's most likely not true for most NAND even if it is, that line of thought prevents people from seeking the help they need soon enough if at all. They come to think that they are flawed and weak which then feeds the depression beast and on top of it they believe that they can somehow snap themselves out of it and become "strong" by sheer will power.
Your comment also implies that there's no difference between situational depression and other forms of the disease. You could also read it as saying depression is the same as being really really sad. I know you didn't mean it that way and I can't blame you for it. Honestly, people who haven't been there will have thoughts like these. That's why I always argue for more education and it's why the professionals keep shoving the "it's a disease" line down our throats. Because people who don't have the experience are inadvertently doing harm to those who need help.
And you're right, I might have been just a touch sensitive. It's not that I take it personally. It's just that having seen myself and others in that situation I know that they'd cringe for fear that some poor soul will take it to heart and actually try to will their way out of it instead of seeking help.
>I doubt (a lot) that it's something endemic or "taboo" among startups, but any time we can make any group of people more aware of the signs and symptoms of clinical depression, let's do that.
Indeed. Also keep in mind the symptoms can be extremely subtle, likely suppressed due to shame, and potentially impossible to notice without some active probing, accidental or otherwise. Ilya's recent suicide that seemed to take everyone by surprise was a reminder of that.
Brings to mind the saying, 'Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.' Some moreso than others.
Indeed, the problem of depression is precisely that the activities that used to be fun are no longer fun. Depression is a lot more complex and a lot harder to fix that just saying "get out and have fun".
I don't think edw519 was trivializing mental illness as much as pointing out similarities that might lead to (non suicidal) depression in people. There are definitely similarities to the blue moods that would be part of the girls reading "People" and aspiring to be someone that they are never going to be compared with hackers(say luck, skill, brains vs. looks, weight luck etc.)
Or being accepted or not accepted by the group. Something HN manages to accomplish by the whole voting system that keeps many in line with the group think and desire to be popular or gain karma and avoid down voted comments.
Sidebar: It's funny how on HN someone who makes what people think is a stupid comment (who may suffer from depression for all you know) gets no compassion at all and gets downvoted and marginalized. Someone who posts a blog post and cries out for help though get's plenty of attention and up votes and all the sudden everyone is nice and bending over backwards to say "don't give up" what can we do to help?
I really don't understand any of this comment but for what it's worth I don't think Ed was trying to trivialize anyone; I just think that his comment merited a clarification. Ed knows it's all love with me.
I'm not interested in using a discussion about depression among startup founders as a coat rack for a debate about "group think" and the merits of the HN karma system. You can feel free to the last word here.
> Sure, they were probably interested in celebrities while we're interested in technology & business, but the similarities are still striking....
I'd relate the start-up community to the celebriy community in this way:
In both communities there are those who have succeeded: Celebrities and Startup Founders with an exit.
There are those who want to do: People who move to Hollywood, and people who move to Silicon valley.
And there are finally those who only watch others doing: People who only read People Magazine, and People who only read Techcrunch.
The girls you saw were the last bit but HN is something akin to an industry journal/forum---we have a greater mix of the first two bodies: the doers. So when an article on HN appears about depression in the startup community, I instantly think of people who have their own startup, work 12 hours aday, and pour their savings into building a product based on a dream. These guys are nothing like a passive watcher, and the causes of their depression ought to be far different from merely mistaking 'details for issues'.
Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.
The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it
as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny,
your self-interrogation exhaust themselves on that."
A wrinkle on serving customers as this purpose is that they pay you. So... are you serving them, or making money? Being a servant of two masters is tricky (e.g. who is served by "raising prices"?). A resolution is to elevate one as the master, which prevails when they conflict. Also customers can be fickle (like those 2 communities), not knowing what they want. So, yet another purpose is to make something great, according to your ideals (if others like it, so much the better...). This is not other-directed, but at least not self-directed.
I get the sentiment and I'm glad youve found your passion but I most definitely see that you're right when you say you know nothing of depression and the startup community.
Not to knock you at all but depression is one of those things that you can only "get" if you've experienced it. Like sex or love or being a billionaire. It's almost indescribable. I've been to the depths of it and back.
Imagine the worst sadness you've ever felt in your entire life. Multiply that by 2. Then add in a feeling of loneliness. The kind of loneliness where you feel like a man with no home, no family, no friends, and strangers hate you. Then your own mind turns against you. All logic is gone and your inner voice is on an infinite loop telling you that there is no way out, things always have and always will be this way, that you are not exactly worthless but worth less than any person you know including strangers on the street (yeah, that includes the homeless and destitute). Now that you imagine feeling this way you also must imagine taking every ounce of energy you have and throwing it away. You have no energy, you're constantly tired, and your body even aches as if you were sick at times! The worst part of all is that these negative thoughts and feelings feed on each other, digging you deeper and deeper into depression.
People in that state will do anything they can to make it stop. Drug abuse/self medication is very common along with suicide. When you're depressed you can't see that there's a way to gradually make your life better so you reach for instant gratification. The instant gratification only leads to more problems. It's such a vicious cycle that you just wouldn't believe.
So I'm a person who's been affected by deep depression and it's consequences and I'm also just about to reach my first anniversary of being in business. Startup depression has hit me hard twice in this past year (most likely because I'm more prone to it).
So after my long rambling rant I'll get to the point: there are no easy answers but one thing that will help out people suffering from this is just to talk about it publicly. There are far more people suffering than we know about. Whenever I see a post on startup depression I have the exact opposite reaction to when I see yet another post about how someone loves Emacs. I think "thank god! I'm not the only one!". Just talking about it is a big relief to people because they know they're not alone and can learn or help each other. There will never be enough posts about startup depression. Ever.
An excellent description of severe depression. I wonder how many people who have never experienced a depression episode will manage to have empathy for it, though.
I say this because now that I'm on the path to recovery, it seems I can recognize all aspects of your description based on my memories but I can't comprehend my memories as a personal experience any more. It's almost as though I'm trying to access a memory written for an incompatible mental model (like trying to load an old version of file into newer software). In a way this makes perfect sense because what CBT did was restructure my mental model of the world.
It also seems give me a useful way to understand why healthy people struggle so much to understand depression - the underlying causes (chemical imbalance; dysfunctional thought processes) are incompatible with their way of reasoning about the world.
I completely agree that being open about one's difficulties is crucial to recovery and living a healthier mental life. It's unfortunate how many apparently depressed people I know in my field who identify with applying the concepts I've explained to them (from CBT), but the second they find out the book I recommend to learn more ("Feeling Good" by David Burns) is about "depression", they ALL lose interest. (I understand this, though, because I was the same until I reached a point where I had to do something about my depression or risk serious consequences.)
I totally empathize. It's the same for me. I remember the experience just enough to describe it but at the same time it's almost like it was happening to a different person. I can feel other memories of times I was happy or in love or what have you (though admittedly less intensely) but the memories of depression are just different.
There are a lot of things in life you can't understand until you experience it and so the best we can do is teach others empathy and just educate them as best we can on what we go through, why it comes about, and possible treatments as well as how to not treat a depressed person like they're somehow handicapped but instead just ill. Ignorance is what drives the prejudice and the "just snap out of it, you pussy" type of comments.
Great book recommendation too! I read that book when I first sought help and it's really spot on. Most psychiatric professionals recommend it and I would argue that it's the gold standard of self help books for depression. I don't even like to call it self help though. It's really partly self help exercises mixed in with education. It's definitely not pop psychology and is based completely on solid science. Maybe people you recommend it to think its another pop psy book full of pseudoscience. It gets updated pretty frequently too. Great book.
Speaking from my own own experiences, I wouldn't class depression as a disease, but as a disorder (wikipedia seems to agree).
I would describe it as having a heavy inertia towards negative thoughts and feelings of hopelessness. It's totally possible to have moments of happiness, be cheerful etc, but these moments are fleeting because they take such considerable effort to maintain. It's even more effort to force yourself into a good mood, and part of the problem is that you don't actually want to.
Whilst I'm skeptical about the efficacy of anti-depressants, I would say the effect I've (subjectively) noticed is to decrease this inertia to the extent that it's easier to have good moments. They don't actually make you happier, they just make it easier for other methods to work, eg CBT or Meditation.
With regards to startup depression. I'd be very surprised if it's something that affects everyone, but there are certainly people who aren't currently depressed whom have character traits that would trigger depression in a startup environment. These people are typically over-invested in outcomes, or tie their ego up with their successes.
My advice to anyone considering joining a startup would be to honestly assess themselves and work out whether they have some of the traits that would put them at risk of depression. Then tackle them before getting involved, almost all the lessons I've learned from books and therapists are applicable in some way to everyone, not just those with depression.
I treat mental illness like I treat, race, gender, and other "sensitive" issues. Honestly, outside of my personal experience, I don't understand and probably won't ever understand the subjective experience of another.
So I try my best to listen. I don't always succeed, but I do understand that listening is the first step.
you'll be surprised how much exercise, sports, meditation, or spending a little bit of time doing something unrelated to your project can help a lot. Unless it's really clinically severe anyone should do their best to avoid anti-depressants.
great article. founders need to read this - launching something new is such an emotional rollercoaster and the incredible highs can be matched by devastating lows.
any startup involves visualizing a future that doesn't yet exist, and the path to trying to reach that version of the future is always more difficult than it seems. most startups fail and this is depressing for the people who invest their lives into them... we should step away from being cerebral coders sometimes and just accept the emotional stress we come under when we try to change the world!
Well, depression in this context doesn't surprise me.
I think of the "Let's build a company to sell and retire" startup as an attempt, in desperation, to avoid the rat race, by working your ass and some of your best years away, with extreme pressure and slim chances of success.
We only get to here the success stories, 99% of the time, though, which makes it seem much more glamorous.
I much prefer the building of a sustainable business a la "37 Signals", or failing that a series of good paying / sensible time jobs working in interesting problems.
Come to think of it, most of the hackers I respect most weren't at all "entrepreneurial", some were in academia and others worked in companies, from Brian & Richie, to JWZ, to Knuth, to Guido, etc.
And I don't have much respect for the "successes" in the startup sense, like Zuckenberg et al, nor I think Facebook, or Groupon, or Spotify (or whatever the flavor of the day is) as "changing the world". Tim Berners Lee changed the world from a small office at CERN. Mosaic/Mozilla also changed the world. The IBM PC and the Mac changed the world.
Overhyped IPOs and social networks? Not so much. (And don't get me started on the overselling of western media of the supposed role Twitter et al played in Middle Eastern riots/revolutions).
I prefer the 37 Signals approach as an ideal, but it's still a lot of hard work and frequent disappointment. As far as I recall I've never seen anyone at 37 Signals acknowledge that. They make it sound like it's a nitgts & weekend thing that will take off based on design alone.
These sorts of pressures are the reason that I made http://www.CompassionPit.com - a site where you can chat anonymously, 1-1, with someone who will listen to you. Just join as a venter. Or, if you're feeling charitable, join as a listener. "Get it off your chest without it biting you in the ass".