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What's Mental Illness Got to Do With Success?

The personality extremes associated with entrepreneurship often aren't all that different from those associated with mental illness, especially bipolar disorder and depression.
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businessman choices ladder to success.
businessman choices ladder to success.

Last week, CNN published a piece about the tech industry's secret struggle with suicide and mental illness, relaying several stories of silent sufferers whose endings were tragic. And, unfortunately, suffering seems only barely in the minority: One study found that nearly half of all Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and execs had experienced mental health issues at some point in their lives. That many such conditions occur in pairs or multiples means that many of those affected have dealt with more than one illness at once.

The personality extremes associated with entrepreneurship often aren't all that different from those associated with mental illness, especially bipolar disorder and depression. Great entrepreneurs are bold, charismatic, prone to highs and lows. "Madness," reports Slate, made great men out of Steve Jobs and Charles Lindbergh. Specifically, that madness was Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, a "superachiever's disease" that includes a love of lists, rules, work, and control. Those with mental illness very often present as brilliant and dynamic; very often they are brilliant and dynamic. Meanwhile, other qualities evident in great entrepreneurs -- a self-starting nature, an attraction to taking risks, and a willingness to live with uncertainty -- often means that they don't ask for help when they most need it.

But there's also evidence that the pressures of entrepreneurship can be a trigger for mental illness; that mental illness does not fuel entrepreneurial drive but, at least in some cases, is a byproduct of it. Starting a company, especially in the hyper-competitive tech sphere, requires laser-focus. And it's exceedingly pressure-filled, especially now that tech entrepreneurs are viewed almost like celebrities, their stories told on the big screen, and the money riding on successes and failures is big. This is one reason why authority, success, and wealth -- things that should make a person feel accomplished and happy -- are often linked with depression.

What doesn't help: Perpetuating the idea that any struggle is a secret one. Writing on Forbes, Amy Morin called entrepreneurship's impact on mental health its "hidden dark side," which of course does nothing to help minimize stigma or encourage those suffering to get the treatment they need -- and especially not in what's already known as a hard-charging, "bro" sort of culture where showing vulnerability can mean the difference between getting a $10 million investment and... not getting it. What would be better is to make more of the fact that mental illness is a struggle, but not a sentence, and that it can actually inspire better leadership. Those who suffer from narcissistic personality disorder can often be bold, ambitious, larger-than-life leaders, good in the midst of chaos. Richard Branson has credited his ADHD with contributing to his entrepreneurial passion and drive; "If I'm not interested in something," he's said, "I won't grasp it."

The challenge, then, is twofold. The first part: Helping those suffering from mental illness learn to recognize, and then harness, their illness to their benefit. The second: To encourage an open dialogue that'll encourage those who suffer to talk about their struggles in a way that encourages others to get the help they need if and when they need it. Certainly, these are minds that have the capability of imparting real change, both in themselves and in others.

And they're already on it: A number of innovators in the tech industry have contributed to the cause of helping the culture overcome mental health taboos, or at least to helping people get the help they need in spite of them. This includes the launches of chat-based therapy sites Talktala and Breakthrough.com to Shine, a daily text message service to designed to address and remedy negative thought patterns. Using tech genius to minimize mental health tragedy? It's brilliant, and dynamic, and, well, about time. Mental illness may be Silicon Valley's secret for now, but hopefully for not much longer.