Research reveals a link between mental health issues and entrepreneurship

New research has revealed a strong link between mental health conditions and entrepreneurship. But could mental health issues actually help entrepreneurs thrive?

Michael A Freeman, the clinical professor of psychology at UC-San Francisco, spent a decade at a company where his clients were the founders of businesses. He estimates that about a third of the entrepreneurs he worked with seemed to have some kind of mental health condition and he still notices the trend today in his work coaching executives.

Teaming up with California-Berkeley psychology professor Sheri Johnson, Freeman decided to take a deeper look at the link between mental health issues and entrepreneurship.

"The people that we admire for being entrepreneurs seem to come from the same gene pool as the people who are kind of socially stigmatised because of mental health conditions," Freeman said. "They must confer some adaptive advantage otherwise they wouldn’t be so highly represented in the population."

Nearly half of the entrepreneurs that they surveyed reported at least one mental health condition and nearly a third reported having two or more mental health issues, including ADHD, bipolar, depression, anxiety or substance use conditions. Of the half of the entrepreneurs that they spoke to who did not report mental health conditions in themselves, half of these identified themselves as coming from families with a history of mental illness.

While it might be expected that this would be something that holds back potential entrepreneur, Freeman actually identifies a beneficial side to these mental health conditions. These weaknesses come with corresponding strengths that the average healthy person doesn’t have.

“When someone truly has manic-depressive illness and they’re very disabled by it, they’re in and out of the hospital, if you look at their relatives, their siblings, their parents and their children, they are all high-achievers,” Freeman said. "And that’s been demonstrated over and over again."

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