DENVER, Colo. – “I’ve had three major depressive episodes as an adult,” Brad Feld, managing director of the Foundry Group, told an audience of entrepreneurs, academics, and mental health professionals at the University of Denver. “One in my twenties, one in my thirties, and one that started at the end of 2012.”
Feld was speaking at Making Mental Health a Priority, a panel discussion on mental health and entrepreneurship hosted by the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network in partnership with the University of Denver’s Project X-ITE. Jerry Colonna, a former venture capitalist and one of the founders of Reboot, also took part in the discussion.
“I think I’ve spent most of my life depressed,” Colonna admitted. “I suffered from enormous violence and abuse as a child. At 18 I had a suicide attempt. I grew up with a mother who was a schizophrenic. My father, who passed about 22 years ago, was an alcoholic.” Colonna paused for a moment and then looked at the audience. “You see what I’m doing here? I’m telling the truth.”
The frank discussion, which took place on the afternoon of June 28th, was indicative of a newfound willingness among entrepreneurs to speak openly about their experiences with mental illness. As evidence mounts of the silent struggles that many undergo – with two-thirds of entrepreneurs surveyed in a recent study reporting “mental health concerns” – the need for a national dialogue on mental health and entrepreneurship has grown more and more apparent.
“My guess is that everybody in this room is struggling with manageable mental health issues,” Feld said. Though he and Colonna were remarkably candid when sharing their experiences with the audience, both panelists made it clear that their candidness was the result of years of self-examination and therapy.
“Outwardly, I was incredibly successful,” Colonna said. “Inwardly, I was a mess. What I came to understand was that when the inner part of who I am does not match the outer part of who I am, I end up depressed and wanting to die.”
Colonna’s struggles would eventually lead him to co-found Reboot, a coaching company dedicated to helping entrepreneurs cope with the pressures of running a business. Feld’s experiences would prompt him to begin writing about them on his blog. The decision would quickly cause him to become recognized as a leading voice in the growing conversation on mental health and entrepreneurship.
“I was writing openly about everything else in my life,” Feld explained. “And if I was writing openly about everything else in my life, why wasn’t I able to write openly about the struggle I was having with depression?”
Both panelists were motivated to speak by a desire to make things easier for those who were dealing with issues like depression, anxiety, and addiction.
“Elders like us have a responsibility to normalize the experience so mental health professionals can come in and do their job,” Colonna said. “Why do we have to make the suffering worse by adding shame?”
It was apparent by the end of the panel that achieving emotional wellness in entrepreneurship often required a consistent, long-term effort. Yet by emphasizing that the presence of mental health issues didn’t necessarily mean an entrepreneur couldn’t do their job, the discussion helped to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness within the entrepreneurial community.
“As someone who’s been CEO multiple times and has been depressed while he was CEO and was very successful while he was depressed while he was CEO,” Feld said, “you can actually do it.”