Suicide prevention steps for startup founders & entrepreneurs

Founding a startup and running a business can take a dangerous toll on your mental health. Here’s how to help prevent startup suicides.
Suicide prevention steps for startup founders & entrepreneurs
Sharne McDonald

There is no cure for suicide, only prevention. Every year, 703K people take their own lives, and many more attempt to do so. In 2019, there were more suicides than homicides in USA. World Suicide Prevention Day is observed on 10 September to create awareness around suicide and prevention strategies.

“More than 700,000 people die due to suicide every year.” — World Health Organisation

Although doctors, police officers & financial services professionals are among the top ten suicidal professions, recently more attention has been drawn to the extreme stress and isolation that startup founders experience, which have in some cases led to suicide 👇

Who is most at risk of suicide?

While it’s been shown that suicide is linked to mental disorders and alcohol abuse, many suicides seem to happen impulsively in moments of crisis where the person is not able to cope with stresses around financial strain, relationships or chronic pain and illness.

Moreover, suicidal behaviour is linked to conflict, disaster, violence/abuse, personal loss and a sense of isolation. Suicide rates are particularly high amongst marginalised groups, such as refugees and migrants, indigenous peoples, LGBTQI+ persons, and prisoners. The people who are by far most at risk, are those who have attempted suicide before.

Suicidal behaviour is linked to mental health issues, conflict/discrimination, disaster, violence/abuse, personal loss and a sense of isolation.

Studies done in 2015 at University of California in San Francisco (the well-known tech startup hub) showed that there are higher rates of depression (30%), ADHD (29%) and anxiety (27%) among entrepreneurs.

“I went home, ran a bath, and sat in it for hours with the tears pouring down my cheeks, feeling terribly, horribly alone.” — Jan Cavelle, Author of “Scale for Success” on being an entrepreneur

After the suicides of top startup founders like Austen Heinz (Cambrian Genomics), Aaron Swartz (Reddit), Jody Sherman (Downtown tech project) and Ilya Zhitomirskiy (Diaspora), the startup world started to take notice of the dark side of entrepreneurship.

“That was a reminder to me that you can’t predict which founders are struggling.” — Sam Altman, President at Y Combinator

Suicide prevention at work

In most cases, suicides are preventable, but it can’t be done alone. Every industry and occupation would benefit from a better understanding of the factors that may lead to suicide, and effective ways of implementing suicide prevention strategies.

In order to create a safe space at work, your startup needs to have a network of co-workers who look after themselves and each other.

The Center for Workplace Mental Health shares eight evidenced strategies to help prevent suicide at work:

  1. Promote help-seeking behaviour, especially for mental health and substance abuse;
  2. Integrate workplace health & safety and wellness programmes to encourage positive habits among co-workers;
  3. Proactively refer co-workers to financial and other helping services;
  4. Facilitate time off and wellness benefits to cover supportive services;
  5. Provide training for the detection and appropriate response to suicide risk;
  6. Create opportunities for co-workers to make social connections;
  7. Reduce access to lethal means among persons at risk (make your workplace a safe space);
  8. Create a crisis response plan sensitive to the needs of co-workers and their friends & family who might be at risk.

Notes for founders

A notable startup founder, Brad Feld of Foundry Group, opened up about his mental health issues in order to help other founders who may be struggling. Here are his key suicide prevention tips:

1. Don’t be ashamed of your mental health issues

Don’t be afraid of the stigma of depression and seeking help — it doesn’t make you any less of a successful businessperson.

2. Learn how to fail

Make it a habit to talk through your failures with others who can relate to your struggles and give you advice on moving forward. It’s important to have a personal and professional support system in place, and to know your limits — make sure you take time off to recuperate from stress and avoid burnout!

3. Stop comparing yourself to your startup heroes

Focus on reaching your goals, instead of being obsessed with the success of others. What you see in the media are all outward appearances that don’t reflect the inner world of those depicted. Learn to be comfortable in your own skin.

4. Learn to spend time with yourself

It’s more than being alone for a couple of hours watching TV or practising a hobby. Prioritise time each day to reflect on your “compulsive tendencies”, and how you can gain more self-control.

5. You’re more than your company

Don’t tie your identity or self-worth to your startup. You’re responsible for the company, but you’re also responsible for your own well-being — don’t take the weight of everyone and everything on your shoulders!

6. Realise that the main thing you can control are the cultural norms of the company

As a CEO/Founder, you have the power to make or break your company culture. Are you creating a space for people to thrive, or to burn out?

7. Share your life experiences with significant others

Whether you’re married, in a relationship or single, everyone has someone close that they can confide in and plan their life with. Feld recommends making time at least once a month to connect to someone else to thank them for their support, reflect on the month that has passed, and plan for the month ahead. As a startup founder, you need to know that you’re not alone and that someone else has your back!

Final thoughts

Suicide prevention strategies for startup founders are not talked about enough, but is gaining momentum as more founders share their experiences and help other entrepreneurs cope with their mental health disorders and the stresses of startup life.

About the Author

A qualified artist (if you get such a thing) by training and a digital designer by trade, Sharné McDonald joined the Hi5 team in 2017 as a Happiness Hero. She currently holds the role of Product Marketing Manager and it’s one of her joys to delight customers and leads with great content, technical information and funny GIFs. She loves being a generalist and is currently completing a Masters degree in Art Education in her spare time.

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