By Robyn Tellefsen
When you think about South by Southwest® (SXSW®), mental health is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. After all, the annual conference and festivals are renowned for music, movies and lots of lighthearted fun. But during this year’s Midwest House, an experiential embassy of the Midwest to SXSW, mental health took center stage.
In a panel entitled “Mental Health and the Entrepreneur,” Refocused podcast host Lindsay Guentzel moderated an open and honest dialogue with four entrepreneurs about their personal experiences with mental health. The panelists included Zach Booker, founder and CEO of Mentavi Health; Keith Brophy, COO of Mentavi Health; Dre Wallace, CEO of Opnr®; and Keith Chaney, co-founder and CEO of Peadbo.
And the topic was timely: One in five Americans will experience a mental illness each year,1 and the risk for entrepreneurs is even higher. Entrepreneurs have twice the rate of depression, three times the rate of addiction, six times the rate of ADHD and 11 times the rate of bipolarism.2
The goal of the panel? To raise awareness of mental health issues among entrepreneurs and share helpful resources.
“You don’t want to just ruminate on what’s wrong, but on the other end of the spectrum, you don’t want to say, ‘Just do better’ or ‘Just fix it,’ because that’s equally dangerous and toxic,” says Guentzel, an award-winning radio journalist and producer who was diagnosed with ADHD later in life.
Mental Health Challenges for Today’s Entrepreneurs
While entrepreneurship is challenging on its own, preexisting mental health issues add a layer of complexity.
“There are certain comorbidities I struggle with that are tied to my ADHD, like rejection sensitive dysphoria and anxiety,” Guentzel shares.
For Guentzel, rejection sensitive dysphoria means she’s terrified of hearing “no” and of letting people down. She says a lot of that fear was instilled in her from previous work experiences. One example: She only discovered that she had been let go from a job when they shut down her email and she was suddenly unable to log in.
“We don’t talk about the damage that can happen when companies do things in ways that are straight-up cruel,” she says. “They don’t take the person into account.”
But rejection is a fact of life for entrepreneurs, who face the daunting task of asking people for money to launch and grow their business. Asking for funding in a turbulent economy in which banks are collapsing adds to the anxiety around that task.3
“We talked [in the panel] about how hard it can be to stay focused and keep building when you know something bad might come, but you have no control over it,” says Guentzel. “That’s very hard for people who have anxiety because we like to control as much as we can. But it’s exhausting to try to prepare for everything that’s coming.”
Building a Support System
That’s why a key theme among the panelists was to build and rely on a strong support system in life and in work.
“We are only capable of doing so much,” says Guentzel. “At some point, you have to step aside and let somebody else in. When you do that, the opportunities for growth in so many different areas — not just within the company you’re building, but personally and professionally — can be astronomical.”
The panel recommended thinking outside the box to build your support system — beyond family and friends — such as in book clubs, libraries or other community organizations. Most communities have established groups that offer support for like-minded people, so it’s possible to find ones that fit what you’re doing as a business or who you are as a person.
“If those resources exist and you qualify for them, you should use them,” advises Guentzel. “Sometimes we’re so afraid to accept help — we either don’t think we’re worthy or we think there’s somebody who needs help more than we do. But holding yourself back from benefiting from those resources does no one any good.”
The Value of Vulnerability
At SXSW, asking for help and relying on her community is something Lindsay experienced firsthand.
After being diagnosed with an autoimmune muscle disease a few days before the event, she knew the only way she could make it through the trip was to share her struggles with the panelists and the team at Midwest House.
“To have them support me in whatever way I needed was a solid reminder that I’ve surrounded myself with the right people,” says Guentzel.
For instance, when she was trying to navigate stairs without a railing, one of the panelists appeared at her side to help her down the steps. “It was a reminder that when you tell people what you need and you allow them to show up for you, it’s such a wonderful gift,” she affirms.
Such personally meaningful experiences and camaraderie translated into an impactful SXSW panel. “We couldn’t even get off the stage,” says Guentzel. “We stood up to take a picture, and five or six people from the audience came up and thanked us for sharing our stories and shared a bit of theirs.”
For Guentzel, the whole experience was a career highlight.
“To be able to explain how anxiety feels and what rejection sensitive dysphoria feels like and how it can play out in life — and to do it on a South by Southwest stage — felt really, really powerful.”
1 About Mental Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reviewed June 28, 2021. Accessed April 5, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm
2 Pandey, M. Entrepreneurs are At Greater Risk Of Mental Disorders: Science Confirms. Feedough. Published February 13, 2023. Accessed April 5, 2023. https://www.feedough.com/entrepreneurs-are-at-greater-risk-of-mental-disorders-science-confirms/
3 Rugaber, C and Sweet, K. After two historic US bank failures, here’s what comes next. The Associated Press. Published March 13, 2023. Accessed April 5, 2023. https://apnews.com/article/banks-federal-reserve-silicon-valley-lending-rescue-a04875a164165b50e971ff4576bf4e27