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The idea of the “tortured creative” has been around a very long time. At points, it might even seem to border on cliche. But the link between genius and mental health issues has been recognized since antiquity — it was, of course, Aristotle who wrote that “there is no genius without having a touch of madness.”
We obviously understand much more about mental health issues than we did two thousand years ago — but there is still a lot we don’t know, and undeniably, there is a stigma attached to mental health problems. That stigma is especially strong within the heart of the world’s tech industry: Silicon Valley.
According to the Center for Disease Control, about one in four people in the U.S. suffer from a mental health issue. But while linking genius to “madness” may be antiquated terminology, there’s evidence to suggest that there is, in fact, a link between creative greatness and mental health issues.
A 2016 study conducted by psychiatrist Michael Freeman identified a link between entrepreneurs and depression. That study found that personality traits found in successful creatives and entrepreneurs were also traits associated with the risk of substance abuse, ADHD, bipolar disorder and depression.
Additionally, a 2014 piece by the Psychiatric Times aggregates several studies that seem to suggest a link between creative geniuses and mental health issues. According to that data, it comes to down to the specific temperament of a person and whether or not they’re in a nurturing environment that allows them to utilize that creative genius. Obviously, there are certain environments are not mentally healthy — but more on that later.
In the context of the tech industry, some of the traits associated with bipolar disorder may be especially relevant. During manic episodes, those who suffer from BPD may result in feats of seemingly superhuman productivity — from writing code all night to thinking up ideas of creative genius.
Silicon Valley Culture
If you’re at all familiar with the culture of Silicon Valley, startups and the tech industry as a whole, it may be easy to gloss over mental health. Tech industry culture very often prioritizes productivity over self-care, and any sign of not running at 100 percent is perceived as weakness. That ‘constant go’ shows up from eschewing the proper amount of sleep to using various methods to “hack” normal bodily functions like eating.
This constant go attitude seems to be deeply ingrained into Silicon Valley’s DNA — from the smallest of startups to giants like Apple. Two former managers at Apple said that the work environment at Cupertino was constantly busy and chaotic, and that many of the top executives were “nuts” as far as their work ethic goes.
With that attitude of strength, fortitude and productivity, the culture of Silicon Valley creates a social stigma surrounding mental health issues — even though the people who work in the tech industry don’t suffer any less from those issues than anyone else.
Not having the ability to speak about an illness, or feeling the need to hide or ignore it can obviously be detrimental.
Taking bipolar disorder as an example again, the low periods — as opposed to the highs — could be especially magnified. Making an honest mistake or feeling like one is not reaching their full potential during these times can lead to bouts of extreme depression. To a certain degree, Silicon Valley’s work culture is a recipe for disaster. That problem is made worse by the fact that the tech industry isn’t the most welcoming to those who suffer from mental health.
Success and Happiness
Does success equal happiness? To many of us, it seems that it could. But the truth is more complicated than that. In short, the answer is no. Achieving a high caliber of success in a certain field or pursuit doesn’t automatically equal happiness. We may already know this, but we might also be quick to forget it.
As CNN points out in a recent episode of its “Mostly Human” series, entrepreneurs and startup founders are basically the rockstars of our generation: their faces plastered across magazines, their stories told in publications and series across the globe.
For many people dedicated to creative and entrepreneurial pursuits — and particularly for those in executive positions in these fields — their mental prowess and fortitude are virtues above all others. This doesn’t leave them a lot of opportunities to speak about the various issues or problems they might be facing in their personal lives. To certain individuals in high-profile positions, showing any kind of weakness or vulnerability may not seem like an option. The issue is especially pertinent when there may be literally hundreds of thousands of investor dollars at stake.
Mostly Human’s Laurie Segall went to Silicon Valley to explore the stigma of mental health issues among top executives. Seagull talked to several people whose significant others had worked in the tech industry and who had ended their own lives. They were both high-level tech executives who were battling with mental illnesses, but the stigma made it hard for them to get the help they needed. Their “highs” and work ethic were seen as moments of brilliance, but that cultural pressure made it harder to talk about their illnesses.
“It’s particularly relevant in the Valley because hypo-manic productivity is a sign of strength and opportunity, and even in your weakest moments you’re not supposed to present anything other than your game face,” Penelope Dragnaic, whose husband was one of those executives, told CNN. “It’s not the culture that creates the illness, but it’s a culture that actually makes this illness even harder to grapple with.”
For entrepreneurs, every moment of success has its counterpoint — those moments of apparent defeat. And if success doesn’t exactly equal happiness, the mental effects of these low moments can be even more harmful.
Those moments can be life-altering, particularly for executives or founders. Take Apple co-founder Steve Jobs as an example. After he was dismissed from Apple, he wandered the globe in a new existence marked by “doubt, questioning and despair,” according to the autobiography Becoming Steve Jobs.
Jobs founded Apple when he was 21, and the resulting success and pressure of running such a revolutionary company didn’t give him much time to think about life issues in a way that could have helped him, the authors of the book told VentureBeat. What went wrong with Apple became an obsession for Jobs. And although he later returned to Apple to resounding success, he endured a lot of pain from being dismissed from the company in the first place. During one point, his girlfriend at the time points out, he sounded suicidal.
The cultural pressure of “crushing it” is not exactly conducive to self-care and mental health. It becomes even more of a problem as CEOs and entrepreneurs are younger than ever in the tech field.
Thankfully, there’s a groundswell in Silicon Valley that could turn out to be a sea change for how the culture stigmatizes mental health issues. Among the forefront of the movement is a man named Jerry Colonna. A former investor who fought his own battle with depression, he now helps high-profile individuals in the tech industry as a “CEO coach.” According to CNN, Colonna is gaining notoriety for cutting through the culture and exposing what he calls Silicon Valley’s “dirty little secret.”
“Imagine having that personality type, the propensity to drive yourself, and then having investors say, ‘You better be hungry, otherwise I’m not going to fund you,’” Colonna told CNN. “You take away sleep, and you’ve got a prescription for depression.” According to him, mental health issues are not unique to the tech industry, but as we’ve learned, Silicon Valley’s culture could be amplifying them.
A nonprofit organization called Bring Change 2 Mind is now working within the Valley to help remove the stigma surrounding the discussion of mental health issues — by organizing events and hoping to start a conversation. Another startup called Project Sunrise is hoping to develop a cure for depression. And a neuroscientist named Adam Gazzaley is trying to create a video game that can help treat depression. It’s currently on the road to FDA approval, CNN reported.
The tech and startup industry has a reputation for creativity and developing disruptive technology and methods. The ultimate hope is that the industry can use its strength and combined creative genius to disrupt a long-held but thoroughly unhealthy piece of its culture.