In the wake of the passing this weekend of Ilya Zhitomirskiy, one of the four founders of much-hyped open-source social network Diaspora, an unsettling conversation has begun within the tech community. Zhitomirskiy’s death, rumored to be a suicide but officially the cause is unknown, has ignited what many see as a much-needed and long-awaited dialogue in the industry: the mental health repercussions of the immense pressure and scrutiny—both internal and external—that young tech founders weather in their quest for the new American Dream.
“These are the new masters of the universe,” says Richard Shadick, Ph.D., the director of Pace University’s counseling center and adjunct professor of psychology in an interview with Forbes.com. “We saw the same profile with Wall Streeters in the 80s: lots and lots of pressure and enough money to motivate them to keep striving for more.” Entrepreneurs, especially those in the high-risk-high-reward startup game tend to have a specific type of personality profile, he says: exceedingly driven, creative, often idiosyncratic thinkers with what can be overwhelmingly high ideals. “It takes a little bit of craziness just to undertake such a huge endeavor to begin with.”
But are entrepreneurs any more prone to depression than the rest of the world? New research does link the creative thought process and capacity for highly focused work so often seen in founders with depressive thinking. Amongst themselves, founders point to isolation, pressure and lack of adequate health care as fuel to the fire of depression. One fund-raising entrepreneur notes that looking for funding might make it especially difficult for a young founder to address any mental health issues he might face. “I do believe it is an impediment to getting investor backing,” he says. “Depression is not well understood by people who haven’t experienced it.”
In the wake of a tragedy like the death of a member of the community, an outcry for a solution is natural. By all accounts the opening of a dialogue on the mental health issues of entrepreneurs—a possible predisposition to depressive thinking and the insurmountable pressure of attempting to reach superstardom by 30—is a step in the right direction.
But Shadick thinks it’s imperative that the conversation surrounding mental health become an industry priority.“The prototype of a Zuckerberg can be quite dangerous for someone to try and attain,” he says. To that end he says it’s essential to address the issue of stress management within the community and the encouragement of realistic work-life balance. “Particularly for founders. Because if someone is starting a company, they’re going to be the model for all future employees and the health of the corporate culture.”
And if work-life balance plays even the tiniest part of the mental health of an individual, that seems like one place where the risk just isn’t worth it.