Posted on September 17, 2021
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This article originally appeared in Arkansas Money & Politics’ September issue. You can find the original digital article here.

It’s time for us to talk about mental health.

Mental illness disproportionately affects entrepreneurs, and a recent Forbes article stated that a staggering 49 percent of entrepreneurs struggle with mental health issues, ranging from burnout and anxiety to loneliness and depression. Considering those numbers, it’s easy to conclude that entrepreneurs are highly susceptible to severe illness and even death due to their conditions. So, entrepreneurs and the whole entrepreneurial ecosystem must be thoughtful about mental health.

Suicide Prevention Month is every September and the perfect time to talk about it.

At The Venture Center, we see people on their best days. Nails polished, suits pressed, and with their best faces forward, the entrepreneurs we meet regularly punch above their weight and, frankly, impress the heck out of everyone around. But beyond the perfect pitches and killer soft skills are human beings that, in rare moments of vulnerability, may say, “It’s a little lonely working this way.”

A year ago, we were reminded that people sometimes only show what they want us to see when a friend and founder we admired and mentored took his own life. We’d seen him shine and work incredibly hard, but we didn’t know he was in such a dark place.

Back in January, while feeling the impact of our friend’s death, The Venture Center started a new mental health series called VCHealth. In partnership with The Bridgeway and Ken Clark’s (MA, LMFT) Chenal Family Therapy, the program opened the conversation around entrepreneurs and mental health. Talking openly about hard topics is the first step to normalizing those struggles, empowering people to get the help they need, and equipping the entrepreneurial ecosystem with tools to recognize and help a struggling person.

And the past year and a half has presented struggles in spades. The pandemic has fueled mental health issues, including increased isolation, alcohol abuse, addiction, anxiety, and depression. For entrepreneurs, these issues have a rippling effect.

Ken said in one of our first sessions, “It is not uncommon to see tragedy befall the startup community, maybe right before the tipping point in somebody’s business, because the mental game got so muddied, and they became so isolated and alone.”

Nothing increases isolation quite like a pandemic. Bruce Trimble of The BridgeWay expressed deep concern about the increase in alcohol consumption attributed to stay-at-home orders. He shared that Nielsen reported a 54 percent increase in national alcohol sales for the week ending March 21, 2020, compared with one year before, and online sales increased 262 percent from 2019. The alarming increase shows the urgent need for better mental health resources.

Alternately, we’re operating in fits and starts regarding the safety of reconnecting in person. The back and forth is enough to cause whiplash in the most flexible person, and for some people, adjusting to “in person” is just as challenging as working from home.

Ken recently said, “While a lot of the world can’t wait to get back to work and in the office or school, a significant amount of both adults and children are experiencing clinical levels of distress around the return. We’re seeing a substantial increase in the number of clients experiencing clinical conditions like anxiety, depression, adjustment disorder, PTSD, and even chronic grief around the world reopening.

“For many, the pandemic with all its problems gave us a taste of a slower pace, greater relational connection and higher levels of self-care that now have to be abandoned as we return to ‘normal.’”

The ground continues to shift beneath all of us, and entrepreneurs are especially vulnerable to destabilization. Fear, isolation, and lack of access to mental health care can have serious repercussions, but what can we do about it?

We can be part of the solution, which means we learn about mental health and get comfortable talking about it. We learn how to recognize when others need help. Years ago, simply seeing a therapist was a taboo subject, indicating an overall reluctance to look mental health issues square in the face.

But just the other day, a Venture Center team member openly shared a plan to take a five-minute meditation break on the advice of a therapist. It turns out, it helps with ADHD and anxiety. But this vulnerability suggests something bigger — awareness of and progress in mental health wellness.

Sometimes, entrepreneurs have the tools to build the next cool coffee shop or the next Venmo but don’t recognize that they are struggling or can reach out for help.

This month is a great time to learn how to have vulnerable conversations about connecting struggling people with the necessary tools to reduce suicide rates. Join us to learn more at VentureCenter.co/health. A safe community awaits.