(This piece was adapted from a previous version written for Catalyst:Ed.)
The last panic attack I had was in 2017. I remember sitting up in bed one morning overcome with anxiety. A few months earlier, I’d left my 9-to-5 job at a charter network. I’d left because I wasn’t feeling seen or supported. Leaving had felt like the right thing to do.
Suddenly I wasn’t so sure. What money I’d made from my first few contracts had run out. I could feel how close to failure I was. This filled me not only with fear, but guilt. My parents had immigrated here from Liberia and the Philippines. From my brothers and me they expected hard work and success analogous to that which had brought them to America. My brothers—one a neuroscientist and cognitive psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon, the other an Ivy League MBA whose resume includes tenures at Goldman Sachs, Ralph Lauren, Google, and Facebook—had delivered. But me? I had a master’s degree, along with experience as a classroom teacher, and as an adviser for eminent philanthropists—but I was also broke, technically unemployed, and entirely unsure of what I was going to do next. I stayed in bed all day.
At the time, I thought my depression a deficiency—a thing to hide, in hopes it goes away.
What I didn’t know was that I wasn’t alone. According to a study by Michael Freeman of UCSF, 72% of entrepreneurs report mental health concerns. Entrepreneurs are significantly more likely to report having struggled with depression, ADHD, and substance misuse. They’re also more likely to receive a bipolar diagnosis. Conditions like depression, meanwhile, are more likely to persist in Black Americans and Latinx populations. BIPOC entrepreneurs, then, face a unique struggle when it comes to managing their mental health.
As a society, we applaud underrepresented entrepreneurs and risk-takers. We build programs to encourage their leadership because we value equity. We share articles they write and refer their products and services to our friends. Yet, we don’t adequately prepare them to deal with the inevitable challenges they’ll face with their mental health and well-being.
The truth is, sound mental health amounts to something of a foundation. It has to come first. One way to think of it is, as an entrepreneur, whatever you build or create is done atop your mental health. If it’s not stable, your success won’t be, either.
There’s no one solution to improving your mental health. No one way to invest in it.
I’ve since made some progress managing my own mental health, so that anxiety and depression don’t knock me out for days at a time. Part of that is due to the gains I’ve made in my career—the firm I started remains successful, and I’ve more recently started another company, this one even more aligned with my personal ambitions and interests—but partly it’s a result of putting in the work. I know now that mental health is a thing one has to keep up with and invest in regularly. So I do that. I will continue to do so.
I desperately want to give you some advice. Tactical stuff to help you navigate tough times. But, I don’t have much to offer.
If this note feels a bit unfinished, it’s because the task of ameliorating my mental health is unfinished. It’s a necessarily continuous thing. You have to keep putting in the work.