Entrepreneurs, Black Dogs and Depression

Thursday, December 22 2011

Winston Churchill famously called depression his “black dog.”

During my sabbatical in 2008, I interviewed an entrepreneur who had sold his business in 2004 for more money than he knew what to do with. However, soon after the sale he fell ill. He had trouble getting out of bed. It was like having the flu all the time, but the usual treatments had no impact.

Finally, he met with a psychiatrist who diagnosed his symptoms as depression and told him that, “when you sold your business, you died.” Although on one level, he was pleased with growing and selling a successful business, emotionally he was a wreck. The doctor pointed out that, “the person you were before you sold your business no longer exists. You have to reinvent yourself.”

It took this entrepreneur two years to recover from selling his business. By 2008 he was doing well. He was going to the gym every day, watching his diet and reconnecting with his family in an intentional way. He felt ten years younger. As we discussed his journey, he confided, “You’re only the third person I’ve told this to. In a way, I wish I could stand in front of a group of entrepreneurs and tell them what I experienced. But I can’t.” When I asked him why, he replied, “I don’t have the courage to do it.”

I was surprised by his answer. Here was an aggressive entrepreneur who started and grew a business that created thousands of jobs and equity that exceeded his wildest dreams. A man who took incredible risks, negotiated with tough bankers, union leaders and executives, yet he was reluctant to admit he experienced depression. What a stigma we’ve created around mental illness!

Depression is widespread in our world and has been identified by the World Health Organization as a looming threat to productivity and human health. It strikes individuals regardless of socioeconomic status, gender, IQ, or ethnicity. It happens in spite of positive attitude, educational status, or the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ approach to life common to entrepreneurs.

Depression requires treatment and intervention, often with a combination of medication and behavioural counselling, which can include simple strategies such as:

  1. Write what Dr. Martin Seligman calls a “Blessings Journal.” At the end of every day, identify three things from the day for which you are thankful.
  2. Connect with people who care. Even though you may feel like isolating yourself, reach out to your social network.
  3. Exercise daily.

You may be surprised at the difference these three actions can make in how you feel. For more strategies and helpful research, read Flourish by Dr. Seligman and The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor.