Strong handshakes and powerful keynote speeches. News of disruptive trends and insurgent strategies. The latest technological advances. As dynamic and demanding as they are, industry conferences aren’t normally known as places to make human connections and discuss mental health.
But at least one founder and CEO, Erin McKelvey, sees that as just another unhealthy industry standard in need of unsettling.
Mental Health Struggles
In a recent article in Entrepreneur, McKelvey points to studies that show that entrepreneurs are more likely to feel isolated and alone. While depression affects about seven percent of the general population, a study, Touched With Fire, reports that 30 percent of entrepreneurs have lifetime histories with depression. They also had much higher rates of ADHD, substance abuse, and bipolar diagnosis. And even asymptomatic entrepreneurs had higher rates of close relatives who experienced these mental health conditions.
Suffering at these higher rates, what is an entrepreneur to do?
Mostly, until now, entrepreneurs have had to gut it out. As founders and leaders, entrepreneurs have cultivated facades of invulnerability and strength. Even as they crumble inside.
McKelvey, after struggling to understand the suicides of a close friend and two colleagues, found that connection and empathy were keys. She opened up to colleagues at a conference and, communicating honestly and vulnerably, made deeper, important connections with her peers. Validated and understood, she was ready to face the stigmas associated with depression and entrepreneurship.
Foster Intimate Discussions
Her conclusion is that industry conference keynotes could focus on dealing with everyday stresses and how to develop coping skills. Also, conferences could arrange seating that encourages smaller groups, two to four people, to foster more intimate discussions. Finally, event planners can motivate honest, real talk with discussion cards and questions, such as:
- Tell us about a wrenching decision you had to make last week with an employee or colleague.
- How do you manage your work-life balance? Is there such a thing?
- Do you feel like you can let down in front of your organization?
- Do you feel like you need to be a superhero all the time, every day?
Touched with Fire also recommends destigmatizing people with mental health differences by understanding the strengths and weaknesses associated with entrepreneurs. It is crucial they are informed about mental health vulnerabilities associated with risk-taking innovators and leaders. With empathy and understanding, entrepreneurs can continue to create economic value, generate jobs, and create social and market solutions while moderating their suffering.