A significant source of stress in our lives can be our place of work. There are few working environments more stressful than the world of a venture capitalist, so we spoke with Brad Feld, partner at Venture Capital firm Foundry Group and co-founder of start-up accelerator program Techstars about his experiences of mental health and what it means to be well.
Could you tell us a bit about when you first started noticing that you weren’t feeling right?
I was in my mid-twenties. I had a company that was doing well but at the same time I was in a PhD program that I ended up getting kicked out of, because I wasn’t a particularly effective PhD student. I was also married and ended up getting divorced. I had a series of stressors combined with my own self-identity issues. I was feeling a lot of external stress from different places [with] the normal stress of building my business on top of that. It took me a while to realise I was actually depressed. I started doing therapy and got a much better understanding of what was going on. Two years in that stage of working through it, I had moments where I was like ‘I don’t want the rest of my life to feel this way, this feels awful’. As I came out of being depressed and felt normal again, I realised this wasn’t necessarily how I was going to feel my whole life.
I was a very functional person. Even though I was depressed, I got up each morning, I worked hard and did my thing. My business continued to do well but there was no joy in anything. I’d get home and not be interested in doing all the things I enjoyed because I had no mental or emotional energy for it. A big lesson in that first depression was the actual feeling of being depressed, this notion of a complete and total absence of joy, versus stress and anxiety.
Did being a “functional depressive” affect your ability to seek help?
It was extremely hard for me to get help. I had a very hard time even going to therapy because of the stigma associated with it. I was lucky to get into a relationship with a woman, now my wife, who is comfortable with the notion of therapy. She would encourage me to go and take it seriously; that helped a lot.
It wasn’t easy to get out of bed in the morning. There were many mornings where, even as a functional person, it took a huge amount of energy to get out of bed, in the shower, out of the house, to my office to actually work.
When I finished doing the shift, I went home and got in my bed again or lay on the couch and did nothing. It wasn’t that the functional method was easier, it was just that where I had very specific work to do, I could do the work. But all the time around it, I felt a range on a spectrum from excess of joy to helpless to completely uninterested in anything else. In the best cases, I’d describe myself as feeling flat and every now and then I’d go for a run or something like that. I could force myself to do stuff but then I would still not feel very good about anything around it.
You mentioned how therapy and the support of your wife helped you. Would you say those are the two main things you found most helpful during the time of your depression, or even now?
Yeah I think those kinds of things that are helpful. I had several other people that first time. My PhD advisor was incredibly helpful. He was a very paternalistic factor for me at that moment in time, identifying the struggle with depression, being supportive and encouraging me to explore things via therapy. I had a business partner who was very accommodating of me. Even though there were burdens on him having to deal with a business partner sometimes, he was very patient with it. I had a mental depression episode for six months a couple years ago, and this was the one that I was public about. Dave is still a friend of mine thirty years later and he was incredible this time around because he knew me so well. He was able to engage with me about being a burden and he was able to be helpful without putting additional stress. He knew what would be helpful to me based on the experience he had thirty years ago.
In the working world, stress, anxiety and exhaustion are very common. How does someone spot the warning signs? How does someone know when they’re going from just being tired and fed up, to actually being mentally ill?
Knowing the warning signs is tricky because a lot of people are just exhausted and there’s this incredible stigma about depression and mental health in general. If you’re a CEO and have diabetes, you manage your diabetes and nobody cares. If you have anxiety and depression and you’re trying to manage that, there’s no signal associated with that. For a lot of people, when they find themselves in that situation, it’s difficult to even acknowledge to yourself so you encourage this shield because of this external pressure, a lot of which is just uninformed stigma.
I think that one of the things that’s hopefully not so bad is a more open conversation that’s going on to destigmatise it. You can be a strong and powerful leader or a successful entrepreneur and struggle with mental health issues and not let it become the thing that inhibits you as an individual, but continue to explore and learn yourself. Understand what’s going on and figure out how to take care of yourself in those situations. What kinds of things renew you? What kinds of things allow the depression to pass? I understand when I’m feeling depressed that it will pass, and there are very specific things I can do. I sleep more, I stop drinking alcohol, I cut back on my eating deliberately, I spend more time alone, I travel a lot. These are specific things that I’ve learned over the years create a renewal for me which then allows the depression to eventually pass.
What gave you the confidence to be public about your most recent episode of depression?
I’ve been writing on my blog for around a decade and I’m very public about a lot of personal things. When I started to feel depressed, I went through a thought process of not being open about it. I very quickly realised that was bullshitting myself, because I’ve been so open about so many other things. The reason I blog is because I like to write about things.
I didn’t know whether it would be helpful to me or not while I was depressed but I knew there would be internal inconsistency if I didn’t and as somebody with an engineer’s brain that likes a very logical way of putting things together, that inconsistency is very jarring to me. I decided it was probably better for the Universe if I talk about this issue, and try to destigmatise it. Along the way, several amazing people, not friends of mine directly, but people whose work I have immense respect for, have committed suicide, clearly as a result of being depressed. I thought ‘let’s put this out there and see if it can be helpful to the conversation’, to try to make more people comfortable with the idea that this is a natural part of one’s existence.
What has the response been like?
Generally very supportive and positive. I have had many extremely well known and successful people reach out, people who have struggled with depression and are afraid, unable or unwilling to talk to others about it. I think it’s been a great relief to be able to talk to me about it, because they view me as somebody they can relate to. I’ve had many people who are struggling with depression ask questions, where I can be helpful to them. Several people have attacked me because of it. I’ve had people who told me I was stupid for putting myself out there. Some people say they disagree that somebody who’s depressed should be a leader. On a whole, I feel like it’s a very powerful thing and that’s what I want it to be, because that’s what I try to do in terms of my world and the Universe.
Brad Feld on what it means to be well
To be well means to wake up each day and be interested in what you’re going to spend your time on. At the end of the day when you reflect back and even though not everything that you’ve done was fun, interesting or stimulating, you feel like it was a good day on this planet, recognising that we have a finite number of them.
Monday 21st September to Sunday 27th September 2015.
“Be Well” is a seven day mental health campaign raising awareness of mental health issues for Practical Dreamers.
The campaign will cover different aspects of our lives challenging the ways in which we interact with our mental health and wellbeing. From covering topics in our personal lives and in our working environments and creative pursuits to exploring mental health issues for the homeless and presenting practical self-care tips to support yourself and others. The last day of the campaign will be marked with a live streamed conversation hosting a panel of experts ready to answer any questions you may have, for more info click here.
Monday 21st September to Sunday 27th September 2015.
“Be Well” is a seven day mental health campaign raising awareness of mental health issues for Practical Dreamers. The last day of the campaign will be marked with a live streamed conversation hosting a panel of experts ready to answer any questions you may have, for more info click here.