Every great business starts from nothing. Even entrepreneurial idols like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk had to get their start somewhere. While creating your own business from scratch can be an incredibly rewarding experience, it can also be one of the most stressful and overwhelming endeavors an individual can undertake.

From market research to launching a product or service and everything in between, entrepreneurs face countless challenges when trying to get their startup off the ground. When just starting out, founders are often responsible for every aspect of the company, which means that everything falls on them. Unfortunately, these challenges can lead to fear, doubts, limiting beliefs and insecurities that can result in a tremendous amount of stress and ultimately mental health issues.

The ups and downs every entrepreneur faces can contribute to feelings of loneliness, anxiousness, burnout and emptiness. As a matter of fact, according to researchers, many entrepreneurs share inherent character traits that make them more susceptible to mood swings. The same passion that drives founders toward success can sometimes swallow them up.

While entrepreneurs often pride themselves on their self-sufficiency and ability to thrive in the face of the unknown, they are particularly vulnerable to struggling with mental health challenges. In fact, a 2015 University of California study analyzed the link between entrepreneurship and mental illness, revealing that nearly half of people who start a company have struggled with some form of mental illness.

Mental disorders are not only common amongst entrepreneurs, a number of scientists, psychologists and others have found that they might actually encourage the entrepreneurial drive.

In light of Mental Illness Awareness Week (Oct. 7-13) and to increase awareness about mental health amongst the Denver startup community, we joined Matt Phillips, the founder of Pro Athlete Advantage, a professional training and coaching service helping business leaders, athletes, and coaches form powerful habits to develop their mental toughness, to talk about how mental health awareness impacts entrepreneurs.


Firsthand Experience

When launching Pro Athlete Advantage, one thing Matt noticed as an entrepreneur was that the pace of everything increases at substantial rate.

“Everyday when you wake up, every fear, doubt, limiting belief, and insecurity you have about yourself is staring at you in face,” he said. “You have a choice. Either deal with those fears, start working through and past those limitations, or let them stay in forefront of mind, which is ultimately going to hold you back.”

At different times, Matt found himself in a position where he hadn’t taken care of himself emotionally, physically or mentally, and he began feeling the toll after a while.

“The things I used to be able to fight through so easily before, all of a sudden when that adversity came, it would derail me for longer than I wanted.”

Having been down this path himself, fighting many of the same battles and coming out on the other side, Matt is excited about the opportunity to help others fulfill their mission in life by becoming more aware of their mindset and training that muscle on a daily basis.

Why Are Entrepreneurs Impacted?

Entrepreneurs, in addition to working through fears, insecurities and doubts, tend to be under a tremendous amount of stress, which can lead to the mental breakdown that comes with it. As a matter of fact, one in three entrepreneurs lives with depression, and at least 49 percent of entrepreneurs are likely to have a mental health episode during their lifetime.

For many entrepreneurs, founding a company can be an emotional rollercoaster complete with ups and downs. The experiences of managing an emerging startup can be irritating, thrilling and destructive, all in the same day. Compounding the issue is the fact that the failure rate of all U.S. startup companies after five years was more than 50 percent and more than 70 percent after 10 years.

Dealing with the inevitable highs and lows can be incredibly stressful, and many entrepreneurs are plagued by an “always-on” mentality as clients, customers and employees all depend on founders operating at full mental strength and not showing signs of weakness at all times. Oftentimes, entrepreneurs believe they need to be perceived as invincible in order to be considered competent by employees and stakeholders, but the belief that entrepreneurs have to appear as “having it all together” is counterintuitive and encourages them to avoid discussing mental health issues due to the stigmatized stereotypes of people struggling.


Mental Health as Weakness

Admitting that you’re struggling with your mental well-being is often perceived as a sign of weakness. Having come from the world of athletics, the concept of “mental toughness” was drilled into Matt from an early age.

“For me, as an athlete, I never wanted to show any sort of weakness because it could impact my playing time, my time on the field,” Matt explained. “I think the same thing is true in business.”

Rather than showing vulnerability, entrepreneurs often practice what is referred to as “impression management,” which can discourage individuals from seeking assistance because they are giving off the sense that everything’s OK.

Entrepreneurs tend to be very driven individuals who rarely ask for help, and this is true when it comes to their mental health as well. Entirely too often, entrepreneurs believe they can figure it out on their own, that they can take everything on by themselves. When people that need help don’t seek assistance, it widens the “treatment gap” in mental health care. In fact, 20 percent of American adults experienced a mental health issue during their lives, but of those determined to have an issue, just 40 percent ultimately receive therapy.

According to Matt, the biggest mistake entrepreneurs, and people in general, make is “not asking for help when it’s needed. We need to raise awareness surrounding mental health among entrepreneurs, particularly those who might be suffering, so they can normalize the experience and then get help if they need it. There are many resources out there, either online or different people in the entrepreneurial world, that founders can lean upon when needed.”


Overcoming Mental Health Issues

“There are certain things we all struggle with at various points in our lives and in our businesses, but we have to be willing to deal with the stress, anxiety, depression or other issues by asking for help and seeking out additional resources. When mental health issues go unaddressed, they can have detrimental impacts on business.

Consider an entrepreneur whose mind is constantly racing to the point their sleep is being impacted. Either the amount or the quality of sleep decreases, which ultimately leads to the fatigue a lot of entrepreneurs experience. From there, decision-making becomes slower or they tend to exhibit anxious signs when making a decision. When they have that full night’s rest, stress under control and clarity of mind, they can make decisions a little bit faster and more effectively, without additional stress.

Entrepreneurs often feel trapped in a go-go-go constant so when they’re not going a million miles an hour, it can feel like something is wrong when it’s not. We need to be able to understand when it’s OK to take a break and take our foot off gas a bit so we can recharge our batteries and get back to work with high level of energy. It’s OK to get a massage, to sit in a sauna and unwind, to detach from what we’re doing on a constant basis. Entrepreneurship can be socially isolating, so consider hanging out with friends or connecting outside of sales or networking engagements.

If it’s something we can work on to improve ourselves, then the sky’s the limit for what we can do after we ask for help”. One thing Matt focuses on with Pro Athlete Advantage is forming the right habits and training your brain to help you get out of your own way. So Matt centers on learning techniques and incorporating them into your normal, everyday routine.

As such, Matt is a huge proponent of meditation and mindfulness apps as well as habit-forming apps. “When meditating, you’re not just meditating and getting calm (yes, you are doing that), but you’re also starting to manipulate your brainwave activity, bringing yourself down from these high beta levels to a more normalized level where you can have more clarity in your day.” The habit-forming apps remind you, via push notifications, to perform certain self-help activities so they become subconscious and unconscious behaviors. Whether it’s taking vitamins, eating a healthy breakfast, getting up and stretching at intervals throughout the day or a reminder to hit the gym and workout, these tools can help entrepreneurs overcome their mental health issues.

Mental health is vitally important for entrepreneurs. Just as important as physical health, diet and the success of your company, awareness surrounding mental health issues is the most crucial piece of the puzzle. We need to understand what mental health means, what signs you should be on the lookout for, aware of the tools, techniques and resources available, aware of individuals we have, or perhaps need to, surround ourselves with, what’s going on and that we’re not in this battle alone.

“We can do amazing things by having that awareness alone.”