Dr. Michael Freeman On Entrepreneur Mental Health

In our first interview on “Stigma” we talk with Dr. Michael Freeman. Dr. Freeman is a practicing psychiatrist and psychologist in San Francisco. He has performed intensive research on the topic of entrepreneur mental health. His work has been published in numerous journals, books and publications. Most notably, he co-authored a report called “Are Entrepreneurs Touched with Fire” in 2015 – it’s a study that shows the link between entrepreneurs and mental health issues. This study has been cited numerous times and most recently in Forbes, as well as the July 2019 Wall Street Journal article, “Beyond the Confetti: The Dark Side of Startup Success.” The best place to learn more about Dr. Freeman’s work and to see his extensive bio as well as the report on entrepreneur mental health, is on his website: michaelafreemanmd.com

Some of the key takeaways from my conversation with Dr. Freeman:

1. Entrepreneurs tend to have rather easily identifiable mental health issues. Dr. Freeman has embarked upon a research program for the last 7-8 years that has identified a specific mental health profile or footprint for entrepreneurs that shares many of the same characteristics we see when mental illness manifests itself (creativity, motivation, energy levels, extroversion, etc.).

2. We talked extensively about the relationship between bipolar disorder and entrepreneurship. We talked about the spectrum of bipolar and how some characteristics of bipolar present themselves in people. Some of the characteristics of bipolar like creativity and optimism, etc. can be very beneficial for a founder, but a full blow manic episode can ruin their life and their business. Finding that middle ground, by treatment and asking for help is our goal.

3. Why is entrepreneur mental health a major issue?Entrepreneurs create the vast majority of new jobs, pull economies out of recessions, introduce useful products and services, and create prosperity. Therefore, it behooves us to understand the cognitive, effective, and behavioral strengths and vulnerabilities of entrepreneurs and encourage them to get help and provide resources for help as well.

Jobs are under attack from many outside pressures such as automation. People who have a job that can be automated, will lose those jobs due to automation, robotics, tel-migration and AI. Entrepreneurs create jobs. 10% of jobs are held by entrepreneurs themselves, and when you add in their employees, 30% of all jobs are created by entrepreneurs.

Right around the corner is this tsunami of unemployment and entrepreneurs will be the solution.

4. We talked about how those of us with mental illness can protect ourselves against the extremes. Dr. Freeman encourages everyone to be evaluated. You may or may not have a condition just because you demonstrate symptoms. If you do have a condition, there’s a reasonable likelihood that you have more than one condition. Start with an evaluation. Find out how your mind is calibrated. Then you will find many ways to “put up guard rails (managing lifestyle, medication, etc.)” so you don’t run yourself off the tracks.

5. How do we address entrepreneur mental health?

a. De-stigmatization – We need to normalize the mental health differences of entrepreneurs so that people are not afraid of it. Start by de-stigmatizing yourself. Ignore the negative messages you have been receiving.

b. Education – Society invents false explanations as to why someone is hyperactive or has another mental condition and we need to learn the real explanations.

6. Dr. Freeman discusses the concept of “Illness” versus “difference” when talking about mental illness. He says that the concept of “illness” really benefits the “medical industrial complex” more than anyone else. For example, if you are a doctor who wants to have a full waiting room, or a hospital focused on occupancy or a pharmaceutical company selling medication, then it’s great for there to be a lot of illness out there. If we eliminate the language of “illness” and replace it with a vocabulary of relative differences, then we change the dynamic around the topic all together.

7. Are we even close to a solution for mental health issues?We have a lot of hypotheses to test. Some solutions are known. That’s what Dr. Freeman is writing about these days. We have a long way to go in communicating solutions. Then we have a long way to go in changing social and public policy in ways that allow those solutions to be implemented. For example, Dr. Freeman asked a woman to run a company he wanted to start, focused on mental health of entrepreneurs, but she won’t leave her current company because she can’t live without health insurance. The limiting factor to getting this woman to take the leap to help mankind, is her health insurance. We need social policies in place that unlock all the entrepreneurial potential energy in the country.

8) We talked about the concept of “innovation ecosystems”and how we need to help thought leaders recognize that jobs are created in ‘places’ and those places can usually be identified as innovation ecosystems where entrepreneurs feel welcome. When you consider the “birthrate” of new companies per 100,000 employees in various geographies, the places with the highest birthrates are places with the most tolerant social policies. We must get government policy makers involved in helping to shape the direction of such policies.

I hope that this episode is a resource for all entrepreneurs, regardless of if they are building in the mental health space, or any other industry.

Lastly, and certainly not least important, we all need help. We all need to check in. We all need to be evaluated. Go talk to a mental health professional and ask for guidance on your path to mental wellness and mental performance.

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