In order to be a startup founder, you have to be pretty passionate about your cause. It’s what justifies the intense work hours, exhaustion, constant cheerleading, and financial and emotional risks. In fact, many founders are both predisposed to mental health conditions and also struggle because of all the stress and highs and lows inherent to entrepreneurship.
I knew this when I founded Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit focused on workplace mental health. The irony was obvious from the start. My passion for the cause was profound; I had to take a leave of absence at one point as an executive in the social sector because my generalized anxiety disorder had led to debilitating depression. Still, I dove in determined to lead on this burgeoning issue. I knew better than anyone that my unique qualifications would also appear to be my biggest point of vulnerability. I wanted to assure everyone—myself included—that anxiety wouldn’t prevent me from providing others with the kind of support I wish I’d had while I was struggling.
Part of what gave me the courage to found Mind Share Partners was that I could largely speak to my own challenges in the past tense. Sure, I still take medicine and go to therapy regularly as preventive measures, but aside from a few days to weeklong blips, I haven’t had a major episode since 2011.
Then came the lead up to May’s Mental Health Awareness Month. Mind Share Partners became incredibly busy ramping up our corporate workshops, expanding our peer groups, and planning our flagship Mental Health At Work Mini-Conference, featuring executives from several major organizations. Wanting to leverage this month to its fullest, in true startup fashion, I agreed to more than any lean team should attempt. It ended up triggering my anxiety for the first time since I challenged myself to put myself out there in front of others and do this work.
At first, I was just overwhelmed, as any leader would be. But then, the disordered part of my anxiety kicked in and made me fear the anxiety itself, worrying about spiraling into the depths of that depressive episode seven years ago that I dread going back to.
How would I lead my organization through our busiest month if I ended up in that state?
Until that moment of reconciliation, I was proud of having my anxiety be very well-managed. I started to realize that this belief actually reflects my own self-stigma. It seemed OK to have conquered something successfully and to talk about it in the past—but not to struggle in the present. For those who are currently struggling, it would be pretty annoying and further stigmatizing to only hear me talk about my challenges in the past, much like an unrelatable super fit friend who says that they used to be overweight.
I wanted to give people hope that they could get better. But I might be giving them more hope by saying that they too can be real and flawed and human—and leaders. Empathy is a critical leadership skill, and is often hard won.
I had a choice to make regarding whether I could be the kind of leader that Mind Share Partners is asking other CEOs to be in their workplaces. Could I show myself some empathy, as I would to others on my team?
In a move that was completely contrary to my old, “closeted” self, I shared with my team that I was struggling with some anxiety. This approach was entirely new to me, and one that I second-guessed myself on after the fact. Did I scare our Senior Associate that I might compromise our big event? Did our COO worry that she would have to pick up my slack if things took a turn?
Ultimately, it was the right decision to share this with them and to set an example of what bringing your full self to work looks like. Only then can teams support each other and problem-solve as needed, rather than individuals trying to do so in isolation. After all, our team is on board with our mission and wants to normalize mental health conditions, too.
Before writing this piece, I feared what all of you—especially our future funders and programmatic partners—might think about my capabilities as a leader. My husband reminded me that this is exactly why I decided to do what I do. So that mental health conditions can be just as normal to discuss as physical health conditions. So that it’s OK to be vulnerable at work. And that sharing doesn’t make you weak—just human. We all push ourselves and manage to get through the day like everyone else. Why should we have to hide our struggles just because they are mental health-related?
Even as the leader of a workplace mental health organization, this experience has made it painfully clear that I still have self-stigma around my mental health condition, which shows how deep it runs in our culture. I don’t want people to perceive me as weak or incapable. Leaders are supposed to be strong and decisive at all times, not vulnerable and flawed. But should that be the case?
Whether it’s a mental health condition, grief from a death in the family, a serious medical diagnosis, marital strain, or the balancing act that comes with having children, all leaders are dealing with something. It’s what makes them relatable—but only if they actually share these challenges. Having the courage to do that doesn’t make you weak. It makes you brave.
Who doesn’t want to get behind a brave leader?